Winner of 2017 Giller Prize

Winner of 2017 Giller Prize
Michael Redhill for his novel Bellevue Square

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

THE GHOST IN THE MACHINE

Emilio de Grazia has sent us another wonderful story.

Oh, God forbid! Begetting in the former fashion/ We laugh to scorn beside the new. Goethe, Faust

What he required now more than anything was talk good enough to stretch his capacities. He had given up on the nurse. She was much older than his daughters and took too much time answering his call when it was winter in the room. And then she had the gall to turn chipper as a bird when it got so hot he could barely breathe. She was round and full-bosomed, so he had a sense of her as he dozed, but he couldn’t get used to the way she looked the other way whenever he tried to explain his project to her. She probably never had a computer of her own.

So he took heart when two orderlies wheeled a new presence into the room. As they lifted the newcomer off the gurney he asked if there would be room for all five of them when his son finally arrived from his California home. Before they drew the curtain between the two beds he caught a glimpse of the newcomer’s figure and face. He was gaunt and pale, his eyes hollow and dark, his chest swollen enough to show ribs under the white sheet. The breathing was audible as the orderlies hooked him to the life-support, then they left without asking if anyone else was alive or dead in the room.

“What’s his name?” he asked when the nurse made her round.

“Karl.”

“Is he conscious?”

“She gave him one of her wide smiles. “Now and then, like most of us.”

‘Will he pull through?”

She gave him one of her shrugs that said nobody knows and everything here takes its natural course.
He couldn’t reach the curtain to pull it open and identify himself. Accuracy was essential in all things, but could he be technically precise with a stranger without coming off as arrogant? No one could be as arrogant as his son.

He barged ahead with his words. I didn’t ask to be here, he said, certainly not on the third floor. This hospital has nine floors, and at my age you’d think they’d give me a good window view. Here I can barely see the monitor, and there’s not much they let me do. It’s obvious that we are we do, and it’s computers I do. From the beginning of the high-tech boom, for the last thirty years. Physics and genetics. Cybernetics and neuroscience. I was there on day one, and here I am still, always more than a few steps ahead. New discoveries, inventions. Beginnings, genesis. Some say genius, but I never use that word. Call me guru instead.

“Really, how interesting,” said the nurse. She was standing over him with a thermometer. When he was a boy nurses always said the same thing. “Keep it under your tongue until I come back. And remember what I told you last time. No chewing on it as soon as I turn my back.”

What he most disliked about her were her eyes, too round and dull in the flourescent light. When she wasn’t standing over him she was a shadow of herself luking just outside the curtain, her eyes trained on him when he turned to study the wall. The wall was no ninth floor window, but he found a whole moonscape there, craters and rills that eons ago might have been water-filled, striations that gave color and variation to a terrain only the uninformed would consider bleak. What a fascinating wonder it was. His mind leaped at the chance to draw grid lines over it, examine each square up close. Maybe tomorrow his son would arrive, and he would show him how. It was never too late. He too could develop his own program, and maybe someday they would walk together on the moon.

The baby was squawking again. Why didn’t someone quiet her?

Nurse, he called out as he reached for Karl’s curtain, I’m bored. I want to play chess. Bring me my laptop, the small one you packed away with my other things, and turn the monitor so I can see my moves.

Karl, do you play chess?

Another fog was rolling in. He had only a partial window view, but he could see the fog settling over rooftops in the distant sky. The window was tight. The fog hit a wall there, moiling against the glass. He’d had enough of machines with spooks in them. The last time he had a virus it was a terrible worm that shut everything down for a week right when he was programming one of his happier moods. It would not be the end of the world if the fog got in, but it would cause trouble for everyone.

There were times when he needed to kick back, and he always wondered why he couldn’t interest his daughters in chess. Chess was a game, a distraction, child’s play in the scheme of things. The best way to forestall the inevitable checkmate was to push pawns into the center of the board, and to back them with knights. He had recorded thousands of moves into his memory, each a small deviation from defeat. Then he reprogrammed the game, made it harder for himself to win. His calculations were fine-tuned to meet the challenges. If the synaptic connections in the cerebral cortex and cerebellum of the ordinary brain were between ten to the fourteenth and ten to the seventeenth powers, his personal laptop had more than double that capacity. Zillions. He could fill the memory with more than two of his own brains, and still have plenty of space to play thousands of chess games and win them all.

The wonder of it all, not only the zillions of zeroes standing at attention and waiting to be of use, but the new memory devices that in no time would allow him to multiply his capacity to log in his latest perceptions and pains.

But it was vital for him to monitor the nurse. Yes, the cables did get in the way, and yes, he did need the oxygen. But there was no compelling reason for her to disconnect him when she came round to do her blood pressure, temperature, and heart rate routines. He kept reminding her: PC stands for personal computer, and as such it qualifies as personal property. She had no right to disengage it from his person. He made that clear from the start, put it in writing and hand-delivered it to her. Since the Middle Ages the world had progressed. Patients now also had rights.

Karl understood, even if he was the new kid on the block. The curtain separated him from Karl, but he could see Karl’s shadow inside and knew if he was awake or asleep, almost read the lines on his face. The monitor looked down on them equally. That was one of the beauties of the thing.

Karl, he said, do you want to play chess?

Karl had nothing better to do, and wasn’t very good at chess. In no time he lost two pawns, and his white bishop was hopelessly trapped. He had a one-track mind, never pausing to consider the contexts that might affect a move. His pawn was a pebble dropped into the middle of a pond, little circles rippling out and away, getting larger as they took more in. The smartest players moved outside-in, always plotting the placement and influence of the larger wholes on the queen or king. Things outside keep pressing in, affecting every move. How could he win at chess, for example, without calculating the gravitational effect Apha Centauri had on the fog trying to get into the room where the game is played? And if one star could nudge the fog, wouldn’t that star influence whether his next move would be with his rook or pawn? And could he factor in a devilish whim to say to the nurse, Yes, I’d love for you to get in bed with me. His daughters would laugh and run screaming out of the room, and then what would his next move be?

But poor Karl didn’t know where he stood. Did he grasp the full significance of this moment in history? It had taken only a few years for the new technologies to exceed the capacity of the human brain, and with memory multiplying exponentially the processing power was exploding beyond the imaginable. The capacity to program every mental function and emulate the human mind was already in place. Bit by bit the human body was being charted, digitized, and reassembled into a brand new organism able to breathe, talk, walk, and take care of the nurse’s needs. And the wonder of wonders was this: There would remain unused capacity, a floating power available for use, a ghost in the machine. Call it the soul.

“Karl, do you see where we’re going with this? This is the most exciting time in history to be alive.”

It went without saying that the new creation, subject to accident but not to human disease, had a probable immortality. What was Karl thinking about this unbelievable development? He had to be patient with Karl, keep him in the game, think ahead to avoid trapping Karl’s king or queen. It wouldn’t be hard to prolong the game. Karl took forever to move.

The baby let out another cry just as he pushed the button to call the nurse. When the nurse finally appeared she was out of breath.

“Turn me,” he said. “I have a sore side. And be more careful than you were the last time you laid your hands on me.”

She was careless about the cables again. He remembered waking from a nap all out of breath, and there he was, with one of the cables tangled around his neck. She did not seem to understand his need to keep reprogramming his days. The protocol required it and the cables had to be safely plugged in and free. She stood above him with a smug expression on her face when he tried to explain. I am remaking myself, he said, hoping Karl was also listening. There’s nothing magic about emulating yourself. Do you see that monitor on the wall? It’s as if I’m going from here to there. Think of it that way.

When he became excited she held his hand, but what did it matter if she were here and then gone? She did not seem genuinely interested. What could he conclude but that she lacked his powers to calculate and engineer his fate. She was an entirely different type of being, and would be left behind. He smiled but knew he could not relax his guard. Left to her own devices she might try to pull the plug.

A wave of pity washed over him when he turned to see if Karl was awake. Karl, he said, I’ve worked the better part of my life at this, but it’s probably not too late for you. The nurse is something else, but surely you feel the urgency of what I profess, especially now that the earth is crawling with so much humanity. It will be vital to be discrete as the new knowledge is applied. It will be impossible to open the door to all who knock, but one day undreamt technologies may also serve the teeming masses of Asia and Africa. Success depends on the rate of patience and degree of resolve and clear-minded purpose we program into the general population. My dedication these past years has been complete, and my life is all hope and desire.

Karl was staring right through the curtain at the game. Look to your rook, Karl said as he turned away.

What worried him most was the fog’s persistent ways, its uncanny ability to purl and weave like transparent serpents coiled in a mating dance. He had concerns about the security of the wall, not cracks or actual holes, but a pinprick in one of the craters the painter had created with an arbitrary brushstroke. From such pinpricks giant troubles found their way in. And humidity was invisible to the naked eye.

“Are you cold again?” the nurse asked.

“Have the girls called?”

“Your son is on the way. From California you said?”

He reached for the curtain to speak to Karl.

“If my wife shows her face, tell her yes, I’m not over it yet.”

“You can let go now,” the nurse said as she loosened his grip on her gown.

He wanted to walk but felt awkward and ashamed, his arms and legs as heavy as the claws of an earth-moving machine.

“Move aside, will you!” he said to the nurse. “I’ve got work to do.”

She smiled at him, her eyes just above the surface of a lagoon.

He lifted a finger to instruct. “We can’t let the moisture in. If we have a moisture problem, everything will be spoiled.”

If she were open to the knowledge he had stored in himself over a career of hard work, maybe Karl could talk some sense into her. The planet was a mess, the ecological balance that had sustained human life for tens of thousands of years slashed and burned away by war and greed. There was no going back to the slow biological processes that had allowed humanity to survive and prosper in select societies. But infinite opportunity lay ahead. Mankind would have to engineer its way out of the mess, and only fit technologies would survive.

Karl, he whispered as he tugged at the curtain, think of what will happen if we don’t succeed.

Karl was tired and wanted to sleep. What did he care about family matters, whether the California son was first-born, spent hours alone in his room, then went away to college for two years long before the girls came along, Julie and the other one who made his hair stand on end with her screaming when she was born. And the divorce, how one evening the word slipped into his mind and caused him to throw his chair away from the dinner table and go to his bedroom to brood with him.

That was estrangement, Karl, real separation. Disconnection, a loose cable, he was never certain which one.

Listen Karl, he whispered: It was a terrible time, but finally I had time to devote to my work. That’s when my brainchild was born. And what does Cecelia have the gall to say to me: You don’t know what labor is.

Karl’s headache was intense. He could see it in Karl’s eyes even with the curtain drawn. There were things Karl didn’t have to know about, the nightmare, for example, that kept him running away. He was alone on a street in north Minneapolis, staring through the opening in a high fence made of wire and wood. Inside the fence was a graveyard for old used cars, rusty and wrecked, defunct parts strewn here and there. He felt dirty, afraid he would catch a disease, and ran. But he couldn’t feel his legs.

Karl, he said, do your legs hurt? I know you want to sleep, but maybe we can ask the nurse to pull the curtain back. Maybe then you’ll want to stay awake and talk. My son will take twenty years getting here, so it’s just you and me, now.

Karl turned his back to him just as the nurse walked in. She had another gadget in her hand. It was about time someone arrived to check the air velocity in the room.

Here, she said, let’s comb your hair and brush your teeth. Open up, please.

She moved the cables again, the big one cold as it lay on his arm.

Please do not disturb. Did she feel no shame?

Open up wide again, please.

Karl, do you see what I mean about her?

And here’s a little mirror. Do you want to look at yourself now that your hair is combed?

Karl kept himself turned away, his shoulder blade like a shark fin under the sheet.

Karl, you need to come around. There’s a lot of work yet to be done.

You can rest assured, she said, that everything possible is being done. We’re monitoring everything very carefully. Can you see the dials?

The monitor seemed distant and gray, his face in it no bigger than a coin.

Only a few understood. The labor of his life.

Karl, he said impatiently, let’s get back to the game of chess. Did you forget it’s your move?

Karl took too much time making his move, leaving him with nothing to do but stare at the monitor. It was sad that Karl didn’t know he couldn’t win, but he knew what he would say at checkmate time: Karl’s thoughtfulness, concentration, and dedication were rare. Heroic. Karl was like the brother he never had.

He wanted to pull the curtain back, but the nurse was nowhere. The bed was on rollers. Please, would she move his bed next to Karl’s? Then it would be easier to explain why, for example, it was so important to conquer the memory problem. Digital capacity was the simple part, all fishes and loaves, plenty to go around. Forgetting was the hardest part, all the memory loss. How to log in what was gone––the woman standing on a street corner in a Black Hills town, the coins that fell through holes in his pocket, the last thing Cecilia said before she closed the door in his face?

Karl had to understand the importance of it. Not all memory was worth a dime. Much could easily go and everyone would be better for it––old curses and grudges, urges for revenge. The proper editing of memory could lead eventually to the voiding of future wars.

You think, Karl, that my enterprise is too ambitious, too idealistic? What if we save just one life?

He reached under the curtain, found Karl’s hand hanging down, and warmed it with his own. The doubters insisted that the vital connection would never be made. How could he translate his living, breathing self––the hope and fear in his heart, the leaps, caesuras, and buzz of consciousness––into another being? Oh ye of little faith. Karl, do I look like a robot to you, do I feel like one when I press your hand? You think I’m nothing but flesh, blood and bones? When I look in my son’s eyes whose eyes do I see there? I live in him, Karl. His hands are also my hands, the lines on his brow, the small curve of his smile. I live Karl, in him. What is to prevent us, Karl, from living elsewhere too?

Your move, Karl said without lifting his eyes. Look to your knight.

He couldn’t help noticing it––the fetid odor coming from Karl’s side of the room. Karl had become incontinent, but there was also an acrid smell of old clothes.

The nurse was standing next to his bed. Had the girls called? Were they on the way? And his smart-assed California son––was he still twenty years away? Did the nurse see Cecelia in the girls’ eyes? He hadn’t seen Cecilia in years. She was their mother yes, but no kin to him, so how could Cecilia see what he saw in them? She was like an alien from another world.

Would the nurse please untangle the cables again? The odors could not be ignored. They too would have to be logged in. No, he was not sure about what use they might have, so they could wait until later when he had more time to think and respond. That was the wonder of it––having enough capacity to respond.

What was the highest function, Karl, of being alive? Wasn’t it the ability to respond?

He knew he would lose a pawn, but moved his knight into position to protect his queen.

And he felt it now, like a small shiver in his bones. Karl cared for him but could not let himself go. He felt the word inside-out, like the wide ripples disappearing in a still pond from a pebble thrown by a boy standing alone on the shore. Go ahead Karl, he said, call it love.

Karl made a thoughtless move, then closed his eyes.

His queen. He had lost sight of her and she was gone. And the two orderlies had returned to the room.

He called for the nurse, his voice as numb as his legs. He didn’t want to play chess, and where was the nurse when he wanted her to turn the monitor off? How did anyone expect him to continue when his queen was gone? His daughters did nothing for him, and Cecelia broke down into tears whenever he demanded anything of her.

So nothing mattered any more. When he closed his eyes he found the nurse small in her white gown standing in the middle of his chest. He found words: What are you doing in here?

She smiled. What are you doing out there, Karl?

Would you please turn the monitor off?

She did have a lovely smile and was sad because his son was still on his way. He was sure of it now––the fog had found its way in and she would have to check the temperature and velometric pressure in the room. This knowledge was vital if one was to prevent particulate matter from infecting the hardware. Above all, one needed clean air to breathe.

He took a deep breath and heard the small click the monitor made when she turned it off.

His face was a ghost shadow on the screen, fading as it shrank into a small bright tunnel of light.

The orderlies wheeled Karl out of the room before he could put a stop to them. He felt the breeze on his face.

Karl, he said, farewell and bon voyage.

Then the light in the center of the screen faded and disappeared into a dot.

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