The Proposal: A Short Story
Writer John Keep met his agent Laura Hold at the café. It was Sunday. It was springtime.
John Keep was not a fan of spring. But it was after five in the afternoon; the worst of the pollen, heat, and brightness had passed. So it was pleasant to sit outside at a table, where he was waiting for her.
He had zoomed out for a minute, daydreaming about something. When he had zoomed back in, Laura Hold was standing before him. Smiling, as though she was saying to herself, "You artist types."
He needed someone like her to keep him from flying away. He rose, they hugged; and he kissed her cheek. He liked her perfume. Something to do with coconut.
He hoped she liked his cologne. The salesgirl at the department store in the mall had assured him that it was mucho macho.
"I'll be right back," John said. And without asking he had come back with a small black coffee for himself. For the lady: a peanut butter fudge mega-brownie with peanuts on the side and something called a "grande" iced double chocolate mocha macchiato with a shot of expresso.
She took a sip of her drink. "Perfect."
He knew her better than she herself.
"Listen, thanks for meeting with me."
Laura Hold dismissed his gratitude with the contempt it deserved. There was no need for such formal politeness between them. They had worked together closely and fruitfully for nine years.
He bobbed his head. "Sure, sure, sure," he said, sounding like that guy in Donovan's Brain.
John wanted to say something nice about the dress Laura was wearing. It rose up in his throat. It wanted to bust loose from his mouth. But his left eye started twitching again. He covered it with a hand and choked back the compliment with his usual cowardice.
John wanted to talk over his latest idea for a novel. He could ask for no better collaborator than Laura Hold. What she did, sometimes, was to help him plan the architecture of his novels. She was every bit as creative as he was --- just more focused, more disciplined, more grounded. She reigned him in and kept him from going off the rails --- making him a better writer for it.
Sometimes John had done collaborations with other writers. The team-ups had always been arranged by Laura. It was always the perfect combination of temperaments and skill sets. It was always someone who could temper his overheated imagination. The result was---to John's eye plus his familiarity with his coauthor's own work---always a better product than either of them could have produced on their own.
In any case, the provisional title he was thinking about for his latest novel was: The Android Book. Yes, it was another novel about androids --- "robots" for the less sophisticated. Perhaps this was well-worn territory but John felt that he could add something fresh to the literary tapestry.
He began by asking his agent if she had seen the documentary about the rise and fall of Tower Records on ShowTime.
He asked her to focus her recollection on the snippet of discussion about the role of the increasingly digital availability and "downloadability" of music had played in the demise of Tower and the retail record business in general.
This is not quite the message he had taken away from the documentary. But that was neither here nor there. He felt that most people had made this connection. Which was fine because this perception played right into his creative hands, so to speak.
The issue was the increasing virtual availability of things. A virtual availability that even threatens the institution of the post office, for example.
John asked Laura to consider the embryonic technology of three-D printing. If it keeps going, it might well mean the end of physical shopping as we know it. Just put in your credit card or debit card on your home computer and then watch your groceries, furniture, or whatever materialize before you.
Imagine the embryonic technology of three-D printing combined with the embryonic technology of gene cloning. Imagine the literal re-materialization of dead brain tissue and nerves and nerve pathways, and the like. Say good bye to Parkinson's and Dementia and all that. Think what it would do for accident victims who had suffered brain damage.
Think what it would do for football players and athletes in other high-impact sports. Like boxing and mixed martial arts fighting. What a relief it would be for sports fans to finally be able to enjoy the gladiatorial games without guilt.
"Careful, dear, your cynicism's showing again," Laura said.
When John paused, she enlarged her interruption. She was in no hurry, mind you, she happened to have plenty of time. She was perfectly content to share the company of her favorite writer; and she was sitting there enjoying her macchiato and her giant peanut butter fudge brownie with peanuts on the side, which she was eating with a knife and fork, it was so big.
But she was wondering if John couldn't just simply tell her his idea directly. "For once," which she didn't say out loud. She was just asking.
John supposed he had taken a bit of a detour. The issue was androids. But in a way, he hadn't. Because he supposed that if you healed the brain, especially through regeneration, or re-materialization, you change the brain. Change the brain and you change the person.
You change the identity of the person. The plasticity of identity is a major theme of the new novel John Keep is proposing.
He could be absent-minded sometimes. He could get lost in his own world of the mind. He could even be flighty. But he was not a complete idiot. There were lots and lots and lots of times when he actually knew exactly what he was doing.
That little rant remained internal to John. He did not want to be visibly defensive and prickly at this moment. He did not want to spoil the mood with Laura sitting there looking so good and smelling so sweet.
Wait. Had she called him 'dear' before? Or had he imagined that?
Anyway, John assured his agent that the preamble was necessary, to show how his idea differed markedly from what had come before. He returned to the idea of the increasing virtual availability of things.
He said that he could imagine the following: If the technology facilitating the increasing virtual availability of things continued in a certain direction, it might very well actually stimulate de-urbanization. Let your imagination fly and suppose that cities break up because people no longer have the need, or desire truth be told, to live so close to another.
What if you could even have an operation without leaving your home and without any medical personnel needing to come to you? What if a perfect holographic recreation of your body could be beamed to the hospital?
And what if what they do, at the hospital, to your holographic body corresponds to your actual physical body at home.........?
Nah! He waved away the suggestion. ... Or tried to... What if the universe were like a three-dimensional chessboard, in which whatever was done on one board or plane, had a necessarily corresponding effect on the other planes.......?
This time Laura really felt she must protest. "Shane," she mock-called. "Come back, Shane..." like that little boy calling after the character called Shane, in that Western of the same name: Shane.
"Okay, okay, okay, okay." He would meditate on those mysteries another time. "Listen," he said, "what if you never had to see your friends again..." he paused dramatically, as was his wont when making a pitch, "but, at the same time, you had them available any and every time you wished, and wherever you wished?"
'Shane,' who had 'come back' said, "You see, you never have to see your friends again. Yet, you can have them with you always. And what's more, you can turn them 'on' and 'off' at will."
In the imagined world John Keep proposed to create, things have gotten to the point where one can simply transfer and download the personalities and characters of all her friends and relatives. These essences can then be transferred to androids.
In this reality, that is the sole function of androids: to be receptacles of the downloaded personalities of other, real people.
It works like this: Outwardly, androids are human-shaped but blank of feature, totally indistinct before a human essence has been downloaded to it. And then, through the magic of a special bio-telepathic-morphing epidermis, or something like that, the android is molded into the outward appearance of the person's whose essence has been transferred in.
The android can be turned on and off at will, of course. But suppose you 'unfriend' someone, like they do on Face Book. You can then withdraw the essence from the android, whose outer appearance goes back to being blank.
As for the withdrawn essence, you can either destroy it; or, if you want to be cruel, transfer it to a toaster or something. The futuristic, high-tech equivalent of Jesus banishing those demons to the herd of pigs.
This time Laura Hold only interrupted to tell the writer how intriguing his idea sounded. And so beautifully dystopian too. For more and more people, these days, social media as accessed through various electronic devices did seem to encroach upon, if not substitute for actual face-to-face human interaction. And you can turn your social media on and off at will. Why not go all the way?
Right. Using this conception as the basic platform, what John was proposing was a novel that would be, in structure, like Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles: a series of short stories that can stand alone, but that were also interconnected with every other story.
In this dystopian future, a typical home would be out in the open, at least ten miles away from anything and anyone else. Houses would look pretty much like they do today. Of course, the only difference would be that they come equipped for space to house, say, a few dozen receptacle-droids (android robotic human essence-carriers).
You would have a garage for your cars and trucks. If you are a farmer, you'd have that plus a housing to store your tractors and such; you'd have a barn for grain or hay, or whatever farmers and ranchers store in barns.
And then each of you would have an additional structure to house, say, 30-50 android robotic human essence-carriers lying in tubes or something.
Now suppose your name is Tom and you want to go bowling with "Bill" and "Fred" and "Jim." You would turn on your android robotic human essence-carrier, holding those identities. You see, for all intents and purposes these are the "real" Bill and Fred and Jim. Then the four of you would go bowling.
Then when you got tired of them, you turned them off and put them back in their places in your special storage shed.
Things would get to the point where you couldn't tell the authentic humans from the android robotic human essence-carriers. And, in a sense, that would be precisely the point. Indeed, for this reason, whenever you see a group of "friends" out and about, all but one are likely to be android robotic human essence-carriers.
Now, with that state of affairs in place, imagine all the fun you could have.
1. Suppose, one day, you try to turn 'off' one of your receptacle robots, but she will not or cannot be turned off?
2. Such an android would be, in effect, "unplugged," or out of the "Matrix," like Smith. What might be this android's disposition toward the biological human whose essence she had "inherited"? (a slight variation on the theme of Dean Koontz's Mr.. Murder).
3. In this far-distant future, what if dangerous, violent criminals are not locked up in prison anymore? What if, instead, their essences are transferred to ancient electronic devices of the --- wait for it --- Twentieth Century! Suppose there are "prison" junkyards like this all over the world. (variation on The Phantom Zone from Superman).
4. Suppose, one day, there is a power outage and when the lights come back on, one of your android robotic human essence-carriers has come "unplugged" like Smith and is walking around on her own. She can no longer be turned off. And what's more, she does not look like anyone you know. That is because she has destroyed your other androids and has taken on the combined, amalgamated personalities and characters of all of your friends and family---that you have digitally transferred and downloaded. (Recall the Star Trek Voyager episode when the black Vulcan Tuvak and the other non-Terran, the cook called Neelix had the "transporter" accident and fused into one being: Teelix. Or was it Nuvak?
5. Suppose there is a "slave revolt"-like uprising of all the android robotic human essence-carriers. Imagine a "Planet of the Apes"-style takeover.
6. Suppose an android "wakes up" to find himself in the waiting room for Hell. He discovers that his "soul" has been "judged" and condemned to eternal damnation in Hell. The android freaks out. He pleads that this has to be some kind of mistake. He says to anyone who'll listen that he shouldn't be here; that its a big mistake; that he was never alive therefore he could not rightly be judged (think reverse-Pinocchio or reverse-Scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz). He retains legal counsel to argue his case, to get him released from eternal damnation due to the fact that he had never been alive. But the prosecutor makes his case and, while acknowledging the android status of the condemned, manages to prove that the robot, had, at some time, actually achieved sentience, a "soul," and accountability. In a dramatic moment, the android himself is convinced; and in another dramatic moment, a clerk or messenger of some kind comes in with a message: There has been a most dreadful clerical mix up. The android is worthy and therefore destined to dwell in Paradise in the peace of the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen!
And so on and so forth. That is what John Keep had for a start.
Absolutely mind-bending! Laura Hold was breathing sort of hard, almost like an orgasm, if the embarrassing truth be told. This is what made her boy so great. This was why John Keep was her favorite author of all those her firm represented. (He was not her absolute favorite of all time; that was Joyce Carol Oates; and that had been established long ago).
John Keep was not the most lucrative writer her firm handled, but he was among the most genuinely talented and interesting. His idea was solid, really strong. He needed this, she knew. He had been in a bit of a slump and had gotten down on himself.
"I think you're back, baby," Laura said. They would work on the proposal together, get it perfect.
"What kind of advance do you think we can get for it?" John said.
"Pretty hefty, I should think," she said.
John Keep took Laura Hold's hand. He had another proposal to make.
She said yes and everybody around them in the café applauded. They were married in June and it was beautiful.
They would be blessed with longevity. They would see children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren come into the world. They would spend the next fifty years together. Theirs was to be an all-time love. Inscribed across the stars.