All heroes in our own stories

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Featured Review on this writing by HJ FURL

Photo by author (1,400 words).

Pascale recalls a public lecture she had attended in her final year at university, the one which had radicalised her, finally confirmed her move into activism. The lecture had been at Imperial College in the department of Artificial Intelligence. She had been visiting London with friends and somehow had ended up there. Blame her perennial curiosity.

In her mind, she’s there now.

The speaker is Dr Alain Montand, an alumni of Imperial and a successful researcher and consultant. The title of his talk is endearingly obscure: “To see ourselves as others see us”; Montand, the showman, seems determined to maintain a sense of mystery.

The lecture theatre is tiered, arcs of hard wooden benches descend to the stage where a self-assured Montand waits at the lectern. Behind him looms a huge projection screen.

Pascale is by herself, right at the back.

“This talk is in three parts,” says Montand by way of introduction, “Three parts and perhaps a moral which might emerge from our discussion at the end.”

He sweeps a commanding gaze across the audience although it must be hard to see the packed ranks of listeners. The stage is brightly lit, the rest is in shadow.

“Some people leave their bodies for research after they die,” he says, “and you may have heard of body farms, spaces where bodies are left to decompose. Police and pathologists want to understand the timelines of decay and infestation.”

He glances again at his audience.

“How many of you would be prepared to leave your own corpse to a body farm?”

There’s a wave of subdued chitchat in the audience, along with subdued laughter. Hands go up though Pascale reckons there are only a couple of dozen out of an audience numbering hundreds. Some are surely sheer bravado.

“Ok,” says Montand easily, “Some of you at any rate. Perhaps you’re put off by the open air environment, the rain and the winds? Here at Imperial we have an altogether more benign environment. Perhaps it should be called a body lounge - corpses are strewn inside a specially-instrumented house. After all, not all bodies are discovered in woods and fields.”

He turns to the screen. It documents a collaboration between the Department of Parasitology at Cambridge, the Department of Artificial Intelligence at Imperial and the UK Ministry of Defence.

The next slide shows a completely normal suburban living room. There’s a fitted carpet, a couch and armchairs, a TV set, coffee table and some bookshelves.

On the couch is the semi-clad corpse of a young man.

“This room is one of the most instrumented spaces in the world,” says Montand. “It has every conceivable sensor culminating in a realtime MRI machine capable of tracking biological activity at the cellular level.

“Our contribution - Imperial’s that is - was to develop a deep learning AI system which could make sense out of the living creatures here - pretty much read their minds, actually.”

He turns back to face the audience.

“Our deep learning AI can zoom down to individual creatures and track them, reading off their neuronal activity. We trained the system to associate synaptic firing patterns with high-level, intentional concepts. What does that mean? That the AI can construe their thinking in terms humans can understand.”

He smiles.

“If you think Dr Dolittle, you won’t go too far wrong - if anyone saw the ghastly film, or read the books.”

Lines of text appear on the giant screen.

“Now this is a report the AI produced based on one test run. The observations span half an hour or so. It’s been lightly-edited to remove gaps  but otherwise it’s a transcription of what actually occurred. We, of course, supplied the names: ‘Jack’ and ‘Jill’.

A synthetic voice booms out, reading the words on the slide, narrating the unfolding story.

---

Jack shook himself awake. A cosy forest of soft tendrils had cushioned and supported him during sleep but now he sprang up invigorated. He had things to do.

His senses aquiver, Jack felt the nearby presence of a looming source of heat. How had he missed it? With one bound he left his nest behind; a new adventure beckoned in this strange new land of warmth, a savannah punctuated by dense strands through which he slipped with ease.

There were others around, he knew: the craving was upon him. But first things first: he bent over, probing the ground beneath his feet, that warm pulsating mass. Cautiously he pressed his face against the surface, pressed harder and began to ingest sweet essence. He sucked and licked and felt himself getting fuller. Pausing, he sensed the approach of an entrancing female, her mouth dripping the fluid she too had imbibed. “I’m Jill,” she breathed, already aroused.

They were both ready. He wrapped his limbs around her in a paroxysm of lust. For moments their bodies and minds fused until, in exhaustion, they finally separated. A radiant Jill glided away - soon she would bear their children. And Jack knew that this passionate moment was just the first of many to come - there were so many other females. Surely he was living the dream! He pressed his face to the ground and prepared to feed again.”

---

“A charming tale,” Montand says, “though perhaps lacking sophistication. But what can you expect? Some of the corpses we study are not dead-dead but merely brain-dead, introduced so that we can study parasites.”

A new slide, and again a synthesised voice articulates the words for those with poor eyesight or indifferent reading skills.

“Flea eggs are tiny, white, ovals which hatch into worm-like larvae without eyes. Adult fleas are blood-feeders only, male and female fleas must feed on blood before they can mate. The first blood meal triggers the maturation of the ovaries in females and dissolves the testicular plug in males, copulation soon follows. Female fleas can lay 5000 or more eggs over their lifetime.”

“So there you are,” Montand confesses, “Jack and Jill are fleas, living out their life-cycle. Do you think we get some insight from seeing things from the flea’s point of view? Their ‘interior view’, if you like?”

Montand looks to the staff members who have arrived bearing radio-microphones.

“I think we can take questions and comments now.”

The lights go up and as usual, everyone looks around to see who’ll break the ice. There are quite a few technical questions and a few which serve to capture just how icky some people feel about the whole topic. None of them seems to really hit the mark so finally, overcoming her nerves, Pascale puts her hand up.

Mic in hand, she stands up, looks across the rows descending in front of her, down to the small figure of Dr Alain Montand peering up from the stage. She composes her thoughts.

“Dr Montand, I think the shock value of this talk is the contrast between the perfectly matter-of-fact, even heroic understanding the flea has of its own life - how it overcomes challenges to secure a mate and family - and the horror we feel at such a loathsome insect.

“But you could do this experiment with any animal, even humans. So are you telling us that all moral judgements are relative and therefore suspect? Are you suggesting that our struggles for freedom and justice, which give such dignity to our lives, are simply flea-stories?”

The audience is completely silent, as if they’re digesting what Pascale has just said. Perhaps some have grasped the deep profundity of her intervention.

“That’s a really interesting question,” Montand says, “So you put your finger on the culture clash between biology and the humanities.

"The biologist sees humans as social fitness-optimisers, sees culture as a tool for biologically-valid goals.

“The social scientists by contrast abstract away from all that; consider ideas and cultures purely in their own terms. They don’t welcome biological insights - and have closed them down in academia and far beyond.

"So are human beings part of evolved nature? Or should we replace actual humans with simplified, often moralistic stereotypes?

“It’s a good question but I propose to restrict our discussion tonight purely to the case of the humble flea-sociologist, which - as you say - is a hero to itself.”

Pascale, a sociology student, leaves the lecture with a lot to think about. How cowardly the lecturer was to avoid her question, complacently advocating biological inevitability to oppression. As a member of the smug elite, he stands for everything she finds utterly unacceptable. In all conscience he has thoroughly revealed himself tonight, though.

Something will have to be done, thinks Pascale, starting with Dr Montand...


Submitted: January 07, 2021

© Copyright 2021 AdamCarlton. All rights reserved.

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Comments

HJ FURL

I was absolutely engrossed in your excellent story, Adam, I found it quirky, original, compelling as ever - and utterly thought-provoking (your hallmark) - with a subtle twist in the socio-biological tale. Great short stories such as this leave me wanting more, absorbed to the point of being unable to let go. It's good to read you again.

Thu, January 7th, 2021 6:39pm

Author
Reply

Thanks, HJ. Your exuberant reviewing makes my day!! :) Let's hope we're both on a creative roll!

Thu, January 7th, 2021 11:27am

88 fingers

This was a great story. I hope a follow up story with Pascale planning something for Dr. Montand is in the works.

Fri, January 8th, 2021 12:04am

Author
Reply

Thanks. I worked at the ambiguities in this many-sided tale... I have the exciting, passionate Pascale in my writer's cupboard and very much hope she bangs the door with a new plot idea. Soon!

Fri, January 8th, 2021 1:15am

hullabaloo22

Pure science and social science doing battle in a way only you know how, Adam. An engrossing read.

Sat, January 9th, 2021 7:12pm

Author
Reply

You have nailed it, Hully. You're perceptive as usual. Hope your weekend is going smoothly #crossedfingers.

Sat, January 9th, 2021 11:39am

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