I love you Jenny... but are you real?

He’s one of the world’s most ac­claimed nov­el­ists – and here, ex­clu­sively for the Mail, he presents his new spine-tin­gling short story: an erotic tale set in the (not too dis­tant) fu­ture that will haunt you long af­ter you’ve fin­ished read­ing it...

Irish Daily Mail - - Feature - BY IAN MCE­WAN

‘I know I shouldn’t, but I have to ask you this’

IAN McE­WAN is one of the world’s most dis­tin­guished nov­el­ists and has won al­most ev­ery ma­jor lit­er­ary award, in­clud­ing the Booker prize for Am­s­ter­dam in 1998. The Child In Time won the Whit­bread Award, Atone­ment re­ceived the WH Smith Lit­er­ary Award and Satur­day scooped the James Tait Black Me­mo­rial Prize. Atone­ment, On Ch­e­sil Beach and The Chil­dren Act have also been adapted into ma­jor fea­ture films. Here, pub­lished for the first time in this coun­try, is Dus­sel, a dis­turb­ing short story with a very con­tem­po­rary theme…

YOU ask how was it for me. To an­swer, I must go back some hun­dred years to a warm Fri­day mid­night and the mo­ment when I whis­pered with utmost del­i­cacy into the ear of my new friend the in­del­i­cate ques­tion. I was ly­ing be­neath her and she was in all her glory, naked but for a stud­ded choker of lapis lazuli and gold.

Even in the am­ber light of a bed­side lamp, her skin gleamed white. Her eyes were closed as she swayed above me, her lips, min­i­mally parted, al­lowed a glint of beau­ti­ful teeth. Her right hand rested lov­ingly on my left shoul­der. She smelled faintly, not of per­fume but of san­dal­wood soap.

Those bars, im­printed with an an­cient sail­ing ship and folded in tis­sue within a long rec­tan­gu­lar box of balsa, were once mine. She had taken to them the mo­ment she first en­tered my bath­room. Why should I mind?

As we came to a lull in our love­mak­ing and she leaned for­wards, I put my lips close to her ear lobe and lick­ing it, speak­ing into a head­wind of sen­sual plea­sure that seemed to snatch the words from my mouth, said: ‘Dear­est, I know I shouldn’t, but I have to ask you this. I don’t claim any right to know, of course, but af­ter these two won­der­ful weeks... I feel... dar­ling, Jenny... forgive me, I love you and al­ways will… but please tell me the truth. Are you real?’

Be­fore I de­scribe her re­ac­tion, I should ex­plain for the ben­e­fit of younger read­ers how things stood at that par­tic­u­lar mo­ment. We’d been through a so­cial rev­o­lu­tion whose out­comes now are en­tirely taken for granted. The young, I’ve no­ticed, tend to act as though noth­ing has hap­pened.

They have lit­tle or no sense of his­tory. The mir­a­cles worked by pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions — they’re as or­di­nary as life it­self. But as ev­ery­one who takes an in­ter­est should know, the en­tire de­bate be­gan in­nu­mer­able cen­turies be­fore, with Plato per­haps, or with Mary Shel­ley’s Franken­stein, or with Charles Bab­bage and Ada Lovelace, or the spec­u­la­tions of Alan Tur­ing, or when, at the dawn of the third mil­len­nium, a com­puter pro­gram, learn­ing from its own mis­takes by way of deep neu­ral net­works and ‘self-play’, de­feated a Grand­mas­ter at the an­cient Chi­nese game of Go.

Or, most sig­nif­i­cantly, when the first an­droid be­came preg­nant by a hu­man and the first vi­able car­bon-sil­i­con baby was born. Only three streets away from my apart­ment, in a de­light­ful lit­tle square lined with cafés and shaded by pol­larded plane trees, there’s a statue in Molly’s hon­our.

You would think that there was noth­ing un­usual in such a mon­u­ment. Ex­cept that a pretty girl of eight in T-shirt and jeans, hands on hips, stands boldly be­fore us on a plinth in place of a gen­eral, or a poet or an as­tro­naut.

Could a ma­chine be con­scious? Or put an­other way, were hu­mans merely bi­o­log­i­cal ma­chines? The af­fir­ma­tive an­swers to both ques­tions con­sumed many decades of in­ter­na­tional wran­gling be­tween neu­ro­sci­en­tists, bish­ops, philoso­phers, politi­cians and the gen­eral pub­lic.

Fi­nally, long af­ter it was due, ar­ti­fi­cial peo­ple were granted full pro­tec­tion un­der var­i­ous hu­man rights con­ven­tions. So too were their mixed-source off-spring.

Other rights prop­erly fol­lowed, in­clud­ing ben­e­fit of mar­riage, prop­erty own­er­ship, of pass­ports, vot­ing and em­ploy­ment pro­tec­tion. An an­droid could start a busi­ness, get rich, be bank­rupt, sued, and mur­dered as op­posed to de­stroyed.

Around the world there de­vel­oped var­i­ous ‘au­ton­omy’ acts which made it il­le­gal to buy or own a man­u­fac­tured per­son. The le­gal lan­guage self­con­sciously in­voked the an­ti­slav­ery acts of the nine­teenth cen­tury.

With rights came re­spon­si­bil­i­ties — mil­i­tary ser­vice was an un­con­tro­ver­sial, ir­re­sistible mat­ter. On jury ser­vice, an­droids were a use­ful ad­di­tion, given all the cog­ni­tive de­fects and weak, pli­able mem­ory of hu­mans.

Ours was the gen­er­a­tion that came of age in the af­ter­math — tur­bu­lent years of pas­sion and an­guished re­flec­tion. What it meant to be hu­man was be­ing in­ter­est­ingly, or trag­i­cally, ex­tended. If the con­sen­sus of the sci­en­tific elites was that our newly de­vised friends felt pain and joy and re­morse, how could we prove it?

We had been ask­ing the same ques­tion about other hu­mans since the dawn of philo­soph­i­cal re­flec­tion. Should we be trou­bled or de­lighted that they were, on the whole, clev­erer, kinder,

more beau­ti­ful than we were? Were the re­li­gious among us wrong to refuse to grant them souls?

Then, as so of­ten hap­pens with con­tested so­cial change, once these mat­ters were talked out and the leg­is­la­tion ap­proved, life moved on and soon no one could re­mem­ber what all the fuss had been about. It’s of­ten said that the great ques­tions of phi­los­o­phy are never re­solved: they fade away.

All those protest marches, mono­graphs, speeches, con­fer­ences and dire pre­dic­tions were for noth­ing. Af­ter all, our new friends seemed much like us, only more like­able. You could trust them, which is why so many went into law, bank­ing and pol­i­tics and be­gan much-needed rea­son­able re­form of those in­sti­tu­tions. Their na­tures were deeply car­ing, and many be­came doc­tors and nurses. They were strong and fast and made up two thirds of our Olympic track and field team, though sprint hur­dling took an­other 15 years to per­fect. Fa­mously, they showed them­selves bril­liant mu­si­cians and com­posers in all forms of mu­sic.

If ever we wor­ried that they seemed a lit­tle too good at ev­ery­thing, we could con­grat­u­late our­selves that they were our cre­ation, in our im­age, the fi­nal full flow­er­ing of our artis­tic and tech­ni­cal ge­nius. They were, we of­ten said, the bet­ter an­gels of our na­ture. By slow steps, though much re­marked on, and af­fect­ing so­cial life as well as le­gal process, it came to be un­der­stood and gen­er­ally ac­cepted that our crafted con­specifics de­served full dig­nity, and re­spect for their pri­vacy. That’s to say, in a mat­ter of years it be­came so­cially un­ac­cept­able — as was not the case in our youth — to ask.

For ex­am­ple, at a gala din­ner for a ma­jor book prize, you could not en­quire of your charm­ing neigh­bour at ta­ble, prompted by a rather too as­tute re­mark of his, if he, a highly re­spected pub­lisher, was a bio-sil­i­cate based, lo­cally man­u­fac­tured arte­fact. Twenty years be­fore, you could have — in­deed, it would have been the first thing you wanted to know. It would have been no more than a ca­sual pre­lim­i­nary. Just as if you had said, I hear you have a sec­ond home in Thuringia. So do I!

With all the last muti­nous mut­ter­ings about po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness fad­ing away, along with the stupid old ‘they live among us’ scare sto­ries, it be­came of­fen­sive, even pruri­ent to ask, since your en­quiry would be, in essence, grossly phys­i­cal, given that the mat­ter of ascrib­ing con­scious­ness had long been set­tled. It would be no less in­tru­sive than ask­ing of a hu­man over the cho­co­late mousse, Is it re­ally true? Ev­ery­one’s say­ing you’ve had a colostomy!

An­other ex­am­ple. When Mrs Tabitha Rapt­ing be­came prime minister with a par­lia­men­tary ma­jor­ity of two, there were those who won­dered if she was ‘real’ — an­other hurt­ful word that has been dropped.

But the point is this — so­cially, we had al­ready crossed a great di­vide, for such won­der­ing was not done in pub­lic. Only in golf club bars, or on street protest marches by mar­ginal, rad­i­cal groups. It would have been in­de­cent, ob­scene, akin to racism, and there­fore prob­a­bly il­le­gal. That was all long ago, and even now we’re still not sure when an an­droid first be­came prime minister. Or if one ever has. Or whether we’ve lived un­der an un­bro­ken suc­ces­sion of them.

Nor do we know whether (or if) an an­droid has ever taken the men’s or women’s sin­gles cham­pi­onship at Wim­ble­don. Or if a hu­man has won it these past 20 years.

So if my ques­tion to Jenny that sul­try July evening seems de­spi­ca­ble to younger read­ers, let me re­mind them that I be­long to a gen­er­a­tion that lived through the tran­si­tion. As grue­some ado­les­cents with an un­for­giv­able taste for taunt­ing women passers-by in shop­ping malls, we thought we knew a dozen ways to test the dif­fer­ence. We were wrong, of course — not that we would have cared.

Be­yond DNA anal­y­sis or deep mi­cro-surgery, there are no means of know­ing. But we knew we could al­ways de­mand an an­swer from the vic­tims of our taunts, and the an­swer was pro­grammed al­ways to be truth­ful — un­til that too be­gan to change.

Jenny, I’m proud to re­mem­ber, did not take of­fence. She drew closer to me. Her eyes, now open and deep and black, were fixed on mine. She felt — words can barely per­form the task — liq­uid, smooth, warm, en­velop­ing. Sen­tient and sen­sual. Oh, such a love­able self. A bolt of love and plea­sure threat­ened to ren­der me deaf. But my cu­rios­ity was so strong that I heard ev­ery word she said. Mo­ments like these are what we’ll take to the edge of the grave.

The kiss we ex­changed be­fore she spoke was ten­der and rap­tur­ous. Her lips, her tongue — mir­a­cles, how­ever they were formed. I knew, even be­fore I had my an­swer, that I would never leave her. So why should it mat­ter what she was made of?

‘You’re mine.’ She said it as a mat­ter of plain fact. She had ut­tered these words oc­ca­sion­ally dur­ing our love­mak­ing and they had al­ways pleased me. ‘And I be­long to you. Ev­ery­thing else is froth.’ Be­cause she paused, I dis­loy­ally won­dered if these en­dear­ments, how­ever sin­cere, were a form of eva­sion. But how dared I doubt her?

‘I thought you al­ready knew. I was formed in Dus­sel­dorf in Greater France. So were my par­ents and the aunts you’re so nice to. But the cousin you met in the restau­rant, the one you tried to beat at squash, he’s from Tai­wan.’

‘Dus­sel­dorf!’ It was all I could man­age, though the fi­nal syl­la­ble was no more than a swal­low­ing sound, for I be­lieved I was dis­ap­pear­ing. Such mighty sen­sa­tions be­longed not to me but to the world of things, to the empti­ness be­tween things, to the essence of mat­ter and space. Around those two en­ti­ties there rose an oblit­er­at­ing tide of ec­stasy. Such con­fir­ma­tion of her strange and beau­ti­ful oth­er­ness thrilled the world that in­cluded me to a van­ish­ing point of obliv­i­ous sin­gu­lar­ity.

Within sec­onds I had, in the colour­ful phrase of my shop­ping mall ado­les­cence, ‘cartwheeled over the wind­mill’. Fee­bly clutch­ing at my heart, I briefly fainted. How it shamed me to be such a self­ish lover — and as I re­turned to the present mo­ment I told her so. Of course, it was in her na­ture to forgive.

I was in love and there was no turn­ing back. But now I knew for cer­tain some­thing about her that I would need to bear in mind. Her pro­cess­ing speeds ran at half the speed of light. She could think a mil­lion times faster than me. Tact and other con­sid­er­a­tions would oblige her not to show it.

But if we were to live to­gether, I would have to ac­knowl­edge that it would be tricky for me to win an ar­gu­ment or counter any de­ci­sion she made. In the in­stant it might take me to shrug and look away from her to gather my thoughts, she could have re­hearsed in pri­vate re­flec­tion most of what was known about hu­man na­ture and the his­tory of civil­i­sa­tion.

So, there it is, this is how it was for me. My gen­er­a­tion strad­dled one of the great clefts or rifts in that length­en­ing moun­tain range we rou­tinely call the story of moder­nity. Be­lieve me, if you have never apol­o­gised to a ma­chine for pos­ing the in­del­i­cate ques­tion, then you have no con­cept of the his­tor­i­cal dis­tance that I and my gen­er­a­tion have trav­elled.

Clutch­ing at my heart, I briefly fainted

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.