Uncanny Valley

By Greg Egan

Immortality, but at what price, in what form, and how could you be you? In the near future it’s possible to build a new you, a better you, one that could carry on forever. But if you could carry on, if you could make choices about who you would be forever, how much of your past would you bring with you? Would you be tempted to maybe…edit? Adam isn’t all that he used to be, but he wants to be.

1

In a pause in the flow of images, it came to him that he’d been dreaming for a fathomless time and that he wished to stop. But when he tried to picture the scene that would greet him upon waking, his mind grabbed the question and ran with it, not so much changing the subject as summoning out of the darkness answers that he was sure had long ago ceased to be correct. He remembered the bunk beds he and his brother had slept in until he was nine, with pieces of broken springs hanging down above him like tiny gray stalactites. The shade of his bedside reading lamp had been ringed with small, diamond-shaped holes; he would place his fingers over them and stare at the red light emerging through his flesh, until the heat from the globe became too much to bear.

Later, in a room of his own, his bed had come with hollow metal posts whose plastic caps were easily removed, allowing him to toss in chewed pencil stubs, pins that had held newly bought school shirts elaborately folded around cardboard packaging, tacks that he’d bent out of shape with misaligned hammer blows while trying to form pictures in zinc on lumps of firewood, pieces of gravel that had made their way into his shoes, dried snot scraped from his handkerchief, and tiny, balled-up scraps of paper, each bearing a four- or five-word account of whatever seemed important at the time, building up a record of his life like a core sample slicing through geological strata, a find for future archaeologists far more exciting than any diary.

But he could also recall a bleary-eyed, low-angle view of clothes strewn on the floor, in a bedsit apartment with no bed as such, just a foldout couch. That felt as remote as his childhood, but something pushed him to keep fleshing out the details of the room. There was a typewriter on a table. He could smell the ribbon, and he saw the box in which it had come, sitting on a shelf in a corner of a stationers, with white letters on a blue background, but the words they spelled out eluded him. He’d always hunted down the fully black ribbons, though most stores had only stocked black-and-red. Who could possibly need to type anything in red?

Wiping his ink-stained fingers on a discarded page after a ribbon change, he knew the whole scene was an anachronism, and he tried to follow that insight up to the surface, like a diver pursuing a glimpse of the distant sun. But something weighed him down, anchoring him to the cold wooden chair in that unheated room, with a stack of blank paper to his right, a pile of finished sheets to his left, a wastebasket under the table. He urgently needed to think about the way the loop in the “e” became solid black sometimes, prompting him to clean all the typebars with an old T-shirt dampened with methylated spirits. If he didn’t think about it now, he was afraid that he might never have the chance to think of it again.

2

Adam decided to go against all the advice he’d received, and attend the old man’s funeral.

The old man himself had warned him off. “Why make trouble?” he’d asked, peering at Adam from the hospital bed with that disconcerting vampiric longing that had grown more intense toward the end. “The more you rub their faces in it, the more likely they’ll be to come after you.”

“I thought you said they couldn’t do that.”

“All I said was that I’d done my best to stop them. Do you want to keep the inheritance, or do you want to squander it on lawyers? Don’t make yourself more of a target than you need to be.”

But standing in the shower, reveling in the sensation of the hot water pelting his skin, Adam only grew more resolute. Why shouldn’t he dare to show his face? He had nothing to be ashamed of.

The old man had bought a few suits for him a while ago, and left them hanging beside his own clothes. Adam picked one out and placed it on the bed, then paused to run a hand along the worn sleeve of an old, olive-green shirt. He was sure it would fit him, and for a moment he considered wearing it, but then the thought made him uneasy and he chose one of the new ones that had come with the suits.

As he dressed, he gazed at the undisturbed bed, trying to think of a good reason why he still hadn’t left the guest room. No one else was coming to claim this one. But he shouldn’t get too comfortable here; he might need to sell the house and move into something far more modest.

Adam started booking a car, then realized that he had no idea where the ceremony was being held. He finally found the details at the bottom of the old man’s obit, which described it as open to the public. While he stood outside the front door waiting for the car, he tried for the third or fourth time to read the obituary itself, but his eyes kept glazing over. “Morris blah blah blah . . . Morris blah blah, Morris blah . . .”

His phone beeped, then the gate opened and the car pulled into the driveway. He sat in the passenger seat and watched the steering wheel doing its poltergeist act as it negotiated the U-turn. He suspected that whatever victories the lawyers could achieve, he was going to have to pay the “unsupervised driving” surcharge for a while yet.

As the car turned into Sepulveda Boulevard, the view looked strange to him—half familiar, half wrong—but perhaps there’d been some recent reconstruction. He dialed down the tinting, hoping to puncture a lingering sense of being at a remove from everything. The glare from the pavement beneath the cloudless blue sky was merciless, but he kept the windows undimmed.

The venue was some kind of chapel-esque building that probably served as seven different kinds of meeting hall, and in any case was free of conspicuous religious or la-la-land inspirational signage. The old man had left his remains to a medical school, so at least they’d all been spared a trip to Forest Lawn. As Adam stepped away from the car, he spotted one of the nephews, Ryan, walking toward the entrance, accompanied by his wife and adult children. The old man hadn’t spent much time with any of them, but he’d gotten hold of recent pictures and showed them to Adam so he wouldn’t be caught unaware.

Adam hung back and waited for them to go inside before crossing the forecourt. As he approached the door and caught sight of a large portrait of a decidedly pre-cancerous version of the old man on a stand beside the podium, his courage began to waver. But he steeled himself and continued.

He kept his gaze low as he entered the hall, and chose a spot on the frontmost unoccupied bench, far enough in from the aisle that nobody would have to squeeze past him. After a minute or so, an elderly man took the aisle seat; Adam snuck a quick glance at his neighbor, but he did not look familiar. His timing had turned out to be perfect: any later and his entrance might have drawn attention, any earlier and there would have been people milling outside. Whatever happened, no one could accuse him of going out of his way to make a scene.

Ryan mounted the steps to the podium. Adam stared at the back of the bench in front of him; he felt like a child trapped in church, though no one had forced him to be here.

“The last time I saw my uncle,” Ryan began, “was almost ten years ago, at the funeral of his husband Carlos. Until then, I always thought it would be Carlos standing up here, delivering this speech, far more aptly and eloquently than I, or anyone else, ever could.”

Adam felt a freight train tearing through his chest, but he kept his eyes fixed on a discolored patch of varnish. This had been a bad idea, but he couldn’t walk out now.

“My uncle was the youngest child of Robert and Sophie Morris,” Ryan continued. “He outlived his brother Steven, his sister Joan, and my mother, Sarah. Though I was never close to him, I’m heartened to see so many of his friends and colleagues here to pay their respects. I watched his shows, of course, but then, didn’t everyone? I was wondering if we ought to screen some kind of highlights reel, but then the people in the know told me that there was going to be a tribute at the Emmys, and I decided not to compete with the professional edit-bots.”

That line brought some quiet laughter, and Adam felt obliged to look up and smile. No one in this family was any kind of monster, whatever they aspired to do to him. They just had their own particular views of his relationship with the old man—sharpened by the lure of a few million dollars, but they probably would have felt the same regardless.

Ryan kept his contribution short, but when Cynthia Navarro took his place Adam had to turn his face to the pew again. He doubted that she’d recognize him—she’d worked with the old man in the wrong era for that—but the warmth, and grief, in her voice made her anecdotes far harder to shut out than the automated mash-up of database entries and viral misquotes that had formed the obituary. She finished with the time they’d spent all night searching for a way to rescue a location shoot with six hundred extras after Gemma Freeman broke her leg and had to be stretchered out in a chopper. As she spoke, Adam closed his eyes and pictured the wildly annotated pages of the script strewn across the table, and Cynthia gawping with incredulity at her friend’s increasingly desperate remedies.

“But it all worked out well enough,” she concluded. “The plot twist that no viewer saw coming, that lifted the third season to a whole new level, owed its existence to an oil slick from a generator that just happened to be situated between Ms. Freeman’s trailer and . . .”

Laughter rose up, cutting her off, and Adam felt compelled once more to raise his eyes. But before the sounds of mirth had faded, his neighbor moved closer and asked in a whisper, “Do you remember me?”

Adam turned, not quite facing the man. “Should I?” He spoke with an east-coast accent that was hard to place, and if it induced a certain sense of déjà vu, so did advertising voice-overs, and random conversations overheard in elevators.

“I don’t know,” the man replied. His tone was more amused than sarcastic; he meant the words literally. Adam hunted for something polite and noncommittal to say, but the audience was too quiet now for him to speak without being noticed and hushed, and his neighbor was already turning back toward the podium.

Cynthia was followed by a representative of the old man’s agents, though everyone who’d known him in the golden age was long gone. There were suits from Warner Bros., Netflix, and HBO, whose stories of the old man were clearly scripted by the same bots that wrote their new shows. As the proceedings became ever more wooden, Adam began suffering from a panic-inducing premonition that Ryan would invite anyone in the hall who wished to speak to step up, and in the awkward silence that followed everyone’s eyes would sweep the room and alight on him.

But when Ryan returned to the podium, he just thanked them for coming and wished them safe journeys home.

“No music?” Adam’s neighbor asked. “No poetry? I seem to recall something by Dylan Thomas that might have raised a laugh under the circumstances.”

“I think he stipulated no music,” Adam replied.

“Fair enough. Since The Big Chill, anything you could pick with a trace of wit to it would seem like a bad in-joke.”

“Excuse me, I have to . . .” People were starting to leave, and Adam wanted to get away before anyone else noticed him.

As he stood, his neighbor took out his phone and flicked his thumb across its surface. Adam’s phone pinged softly in acknowledgment. “In case you want to catch up sometime,” the man explained cheerfully.

“Thanks,” Adam replied, nodding an awkward goodbye, grateful that he didn’t seem to be expected to reciprocate.

There was already a small crowd lingering just inside the door, slowing his exit. When he made it out onto the forecourt, he walked straight to the roadside and summoned a car.

“Hey, you! Mr. Sixty Percent!”

Adam turned. A man in his thirties was marching toward him, scowling with such intense displeasure that his pillowy cheeks had turned red. “Can I help you with something?” Adam asked mildly. For all that he’d been dreading a confrontation, now that it was imminent he felt more invigorated than intimidated.

“What the fuck were you doing in there?”

“It was open to the public.”

“You’re not part of the public!”

Adam finally placed him: He was one of Ryan’s sons. He’d seen him from behind as he’d been entering the hall. “Unhappy with the will are you, Gerald?”

Gerald came closer. He was trembling slightly, but Adam couldn’t tell if it was from rage or from fear. “Live it up while you can, Sixty. You’re going to be out with the trash in no time.”

“What’s with this ‘sixty’?” As far as Adam knew, he’d been bequeathed a hundred percent of the estate, unless Gerald was already accounting for all the legal fees.

“Sixty percent: how much you resemble him.”

“Now that’s just cruel. I’m assured that by some metrics, it’s at least seventy.”

Gerald snickered triumphantly, as if that made his case. “I guess he was used to setting the bar low. If you grew up believing that Facebook could give you ‘news’ and Google could give you ‘information,’ your expectations for quality control would already be nonexistent.”

“I think you’re conflating his generation with your father’s.” Adam was quite sure that the old man had held the Bilge Barons in as much contempt as his great-nephew did. “And seventy percent of something real isn’t so bad. Getting a side-load that close to complete is orders of magnitude harder than anything those charlatans ever did.”

“Well, give your own scam artists a Nobel Prize, but you’d still need to be senile to think that was good enough.”

“He wasn’t senile. We spoke together at least a dozen times in the month before he died, and he must have thought he was getting what he’d paid for, because he never chose to pull the plug on me.” Adam hadn’t even known at the time that that was possible, but in retrospect he was glad no one had told him. It might have made those bedside chats a little tense.

“Because . . . ?” Gerald demanded. When Adam didn’t reply immediately, Gerald laughed. “Or is the reason he decided you were worth the trouble part of the thirty percent of his mind that you don’t have?”

“It could well be,” Adam conceded, trying to make that sound like a perfectly satisfactory outcome. A joke about the studios’ bots only achieving ten percent of the same goal and still earning a tidy income got censored halfway to his lips; the last thing he wanted to do was invite the old man’s relatives to view him in the same light as that cynical act of shallow mimicry.

“So you don’t know why he didn’t care that you don’t know whatever it is that you don’t know? Very fucking Kafka.”

“I think he would have preferred ‘very fucking Heller’ . . . but who am I to say?”

“Next week’s trash, that’s what you are.” Gerald stepped back, looking pleased with himself. “Next week’s fodder for the wrecking yard.”

The car pulled up beside Adam and the door slid open. “Is that your grandma come to take you home?” Gerald taunted him. “Or maybe your retarded cousin?”

“Enjoy the wake,” Adam replied. He tapped his skull. “I promise, the old man will be thinking of you.”

3

Adam had a conference call with the lawyers. “How do we stand?” he asked.

“The family’s going to contest the will,” Gina replied.

“On what grounds?”

“That the trustees, and the beneficiaries of the trust, misled and defrauded Mr. Morris.”

“They’re saying I misled him somehow?”

“No,” Corbin interjected. “US law doesn’t recognize you as a person. You can’t be sued, as such, but other entities you depend on certainly can be.”

“Right.” Adam had known as much, but in his mind he kept glossing over the elaborate legal constructs that sustained his delusions of autonomy. On a purely practical level, there was money in three accounts that he had no trouble accessing—but then, the same was probably true of any number of stock-trading algorithms, and that didn’t make them the masters of their own fate. “So who exactly is accused of fraud?”

“Our firm,” Gina replied. “Various officers of the corporations we created to fulfill Mr. Morris’s instructions. Loadstone, for making false claims that led to the original purchase of their technology, and for ongoing fraud in relation to the services promised in their maintenance contract.”

“I’m very happy with the maintenance contract!” When Adam had complained that one of his earlobes had gone numb, Sandra had come to his home and fixed the problem on the same day he called.

“That’s not the point,” Corbin said impatiently. Adam was forgetting his place again: Jurisprudentially, his happiness cut no ice.

“So what happens next?”

“The first hearings are still seven months away,” Gina explained. “We were expecting this, and we’ll have plenty of time to prepare. We’ll aim for an early dismissal, of course, but we can’t promise anything.”

“No.” Adam hesitated. “But it’s not just the house they could take? The Estonian accounts . . . ?”

Gina said, “Opening those accounts under your digital residency makes some things easier, but it doesn’t put the money out of reach of the courts.”

“Right.”

When they hung up, Adam paced the office. Could it really be so hard to defend the old man’s will? He wasn’t even sure what disincentives were in place to stop the lawyers from drawing out proceedings like this for as long as they wished. Maybe a director of one of the entities he depended on was both empowered and duty bound to rein them in if they were behaving with conspicuous profligacy? But Adam himself couldn’t sack them, or compel them to follow his instructions, just because Estonia had been nice enough to classify him as a person for certain limited purposes.

The old man had believed he was setting him up in style, but all the machinery that was meant to support him just made him feel trapped. What if he gave up the house and walked away? If he cashed in his dollar and euro accounts for some mixture of blockchain currencies before the courts swept in and froze his funds, that might be easier to protect and enjoy without the benefits of a Social Security number, a birth certificate, or a passport. But those currencies were all insanely volatile, and trying to hedge them against each other was like trying to save yourself in a skydiving accident by clutching your own feet.

He couldn’t leave the country by any lawful means without deactivating his body so it could be sent as freight. Loadstone had promised to facilitate any trips he wished to make to any of the thirty-nine jurisdictions where he could walk the streets unchaperoned, as proud and free as the pizza bots that had blazed the trail, but the idea of returning to the company’s servers, or even being halted and left in limbo for the duration of the flight, filled him with dread.

Read more https://www.tor.com/2017/08/09/uncanny-valley/

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