Looks Could Kill
She left the doctors rooms all of a tremble. She was a natural worrier and agonised at the prospect of breaking the news to Trevor? How would he react to the prospect of a sixth child, so many years after they had agreed to hold their complement to five.
She needn’t have worried. His Toyota rumbled up the drive and, from the garage, he called a sunny hello. As soon as he kissed her, he noticed that something was wrong. “What’s biting you, honey” he enquired. “ You’re usually so bright in the evenings - why the long face?”
She looked at him for some moments, then the floodgates that were her tearducts gave way, and he leapt to her side. “I’m pregnant” she gurgled “what sort of future have we to look forward to?”
He calmed her down, and cradling her head on his chest, whispered “ Who cares? We’ve got each other haven’t we? An addition to the family
will be a joy to us all - just you wait and see!”
A few hundred years intervened.
Audrey had sandy brown hair, a button nose and slightly piggy eyes. She had struggled to find Colin, with whom she was totally smitten, and was eternally grateful that he returned her love. Colin had a square face and a shock of black hair; at 1,5m, he was shorter than the average man. With the advent of Audrey, he was pleased that, as far as the opposite sex was
concerned, pursuit and question were no longer the order of the day. Both were in their late twenties and had one thing in mind - an early betrothal and as many kids as they could manage.
But this, in the 2340’s was not the carefree business it had been 400 years earlier. It wasn’t just a question of falling in love, asking prospective father-in-law’s permission, and a white wedding. No such luck.
AIDS had wiped out most of the world’s population, and the only members of mankind to survive had been those with a strong urge to stay monogamous. Because HIV had never been beaten, those choosing to sleep around had sooner or later had a sexual encounter with someone who wasn’t “clean”, ultimately spelling disaster.
Humankind’s gene-pool eventually became totally derived from the survivors, couples-for-life who not only feared HIV, but genuinely loved the idea of living out their life with a single mate. Within a century, man had deserted his “anything goes” past and become one with the wood dwelling beetle, the red fox and the gibbon.
The survivors took a conservative view. They liked the idea of freedom and knew that the “land of the free” could only persist if there was room to breathe. All (not just the elite) of humankind must be drawn into the greater scheme of things. And key to the scheme was the idea that mating couples would produce future generations – the awful concept of cloning had long been banished from human thought.
Colin called to Audrey “ What are you planning to cook on December 13th?” She switched on her screen and checked who was invited to dinner on that date 3 months hence. Dennis and Alice were predicted to be in the mood for a curry. Colin’s tastebuds would favour Chinese, whilst her own would go for roast lamb. She settled on something oriental, and yelled “It looks like Thai, dear.”
In truth, the art of prediction had been finely honed. With the disappearance of large scale war in the 1970’s, uncertainty had become humanity’s public enemy number 1. Whole University faculties were given over to the creation of certainty and this had paid handsome dividends. Insurance was no longer a guessing game, controlled by a few clever actuaries - interlinked computers were easily able to quantify precisely any given risk. Weather forecasts going forward 3 months were quite accurate. The large comet approaching Earth in 2745 had been anticipated and plans already drawn up for its diversion. The stock market no longer attracted gamblers because company results could be accurately forecast 4 years into the future.
And it behoved every prospective couple intending marriage to submit to
the Postgenitor Prognostication Programme, the TRI-P.
Centuries before, the British had occupied India, and looked at the method of dividing people by caste with great empathy - after all, it was just another form of the class system they used in their home country. But with the passing of the centuries, liberalism had eliminated differences between people, bringing about a single caste for everyone in the world. The old world didn’t seem to care if rejected suitor’s ever found a mate. The new world knew that successful pairing was key to the happiness index, and powerful computers became the best way of ensuring that every human had a hope of finding a suitable mate.
Thus it made sense that marriages outside the regime of the TRI-P were potentially dangerous to society and thus forbidden. Colin and Audrey had survived step one of TRI-P, which was concerned with basic health. Neither one carried any trace of genes which might give a resultant child heart disease, cancer, diabetes or haemophilia. Colin’s outer appearance gave testimony to this outcome - he swaggered on muscular thighs, had a great barrel of a chest and a low and even heart rate. Audrey, whilst a little plump and not as fit a specimen, showed every sign that her frame would go the distance of fourscore and ten.
Passing part 1 was fairly easy, though there were many couples who tried to argue that a weak heart, for example, would not necessarily produce weak hearted children. “Possible, but a statistically low probability” was a typical computer answer to such pleading. And the Societal Controlling Body (SCB), which was only interested in a good statistical result, had long since made the rules - the computer was totally unbiased and should be heavily relied on for answers. There were too many cases documented in past years of couples disregarding say, a tendency towards lung disorder, only to produce an asthmatic child.
Ultimately, no couple had the right to foist progeny onto the next generation which would weaken the future of the global gene-pool.
Colin’s sister Phyllis had failed part 1 and she had received immediate advice that she should seek new mates.
“ This world we live in is sheer madness” sobbed Phyllis “How can I be expected to give Joe up, when I love him so much?”
Colin listened sympathetically and murmured “You know the computer has no feelings – it’s just trying to do what’s best.”
She wheeled on him and screamed “Are even you starting to fall for this mechanised poppycock? We just won’t fit in with your Brave New World!”
The SCB recognised the frustrations which might be felt by couples jilted by its computer, and had uncovered many a coven of such reactionaries, meeting in the dead of night and spreading unsocial thoughts. Huge effort went into correcting this deviant thinking, usually characterised by slogans like “Don’t listen to the Tripe!”
A declining population had played havoc with the economics of the 22nd and 23rd centuries - businesses went insolvent as their markets evaporated in front of their eyes; banks went down, and the ability of people, companies and nations to trade went up in smoke. But there were no starving billions as a result - AIDS had reduced the billions to millions and a recourse to basic living ensured survival for anyone who had a mind to work. Land and accommodation were free for the taking.
As the population stabilised its numbers, trade and normality revived.
During the mid 2100’s it had become common cause that humankind’s every motive was conditioned by the will of the individual to be survived by children. This drive was coupled with the concept of “beauty”; the old claim that it “was in the eye of the beholder” was definitely out of vogue. Recent thinking held that everything termed “beautiful” had as its essence the improved survival of humankind. Things smelt bad because they were potentially disease-carrying, and things tasted good because they carried good nutrient for the body. And the very concept of children was beautiful because youth epitomised survival.
Thus the general love of beauty became synonymous with improved chances for humankind in the future.
The massive increase in certainty about the future had bred a sea-change in religious beliefs. The afterlife spoken of in most ancient holy books was now interpreted as gene afterlife - the “soul” was a charming idea, evolved during an age when man’s ability to look into the crystal ball was limited. His insecurity then had led him to believe implicitly in possibly unsubstantiated antique writing - it was not surprising that even 20th century readers could interpret a sort of personal life-after-death as we know things on earth. But with the increasing knowledge base, such beliefs went the way of the flat earth society, and certainly the self centred concept of a personal soul was dealt a knell.
Now, most people believed that the only physical part that might survive death was the collection of genes one passed on to one’s progeny. Quite a nice thought, really - your very own afterlife growing up right in front of you!
The chief programmer of TRI-P stared at the latest set of satisfaction statistics. “Average satisfaction up from 56 to 58.2%. Fellow programmers, we’re getting somewhere, but nothing must break our resolve. We have to ensure that every potential child producer goes through a test regime that will make life in the future “more beautiful”.”
The TRI-P presented itself as a major barrier to every couple on the way to the altar. It was a crucial test.
TRI-P Part 2 was about compatibility. After all, if a couple was trying for a life-long relationship, didn’t they deserve a peek at how their spouse might behave in 30 years’ time? The computer was able to project current traits into the future, then predict how that would evolve, given the stress of modern living, and yes, the stress of living with this ever changing partner.
Every time the TRI-P computer was disregarded ( lovers always consider themselves to have some sort of divine insight ), a divorce inevitably threatened twenty years on. And of course this became the start of a social problem. The few divorcees that there were, became outcasts, developed poor self image, even took to crime. This had been researched by Professor Sneddon of Maxwell University, and he had been able to establish that in 93% of cases, divorce could be traced to a “growing apart” factor. The computer could easily anticipate this and rarely erred.
Phyllis and Joe had pressed on with TRI-P part 2, passing with flying colours. A childless marriage was grudgingly agreed to by the computer but the couple was forced to submit to sterilisation. Phyllis and Joe were exceptional – the compulsory surgery usually persuaded loyal partners to change their minds.
The world of the 24th century was not like it was in the 2100’s when there were billions of prospective mates to choose from. In the old days, marriage had all but disappeared, and singles advertised on computers for matches. As long as a fair fit was predicted for a few years that was good enough. Given failure and divorce, finding another mate from all those billions of choices would be easy.
But nowadays, people were much more scarce and one had to be totally sure. With divorces somewhat rare, divorcees’ chances of finding a new marriage partner were remote. After all, who would pair up with someone who had already failed, not a computer test, but the real thing? The resultant frustration could clearly create anti-social behaviour, and thus divorce was something to be feared, watched carefully and avoided if at all possible. What was worse, Sneddon’s findings extended into more sensational territory - he was able to show a strong correlation between divorce and crime, both “unbeautiful” concepts.
Society had pledged to stamp out the divorced-turned-rogue man or woman. Programming the computer so that it could cope with the hordes of mate-seeking singles was tough enough. This burden, compounded by what amounted to great numbers of loose estranged cannons, would be too heavy a load.
Audrey and Colin were very confident about phase 2. Both were very tolerant people , and their combined sense of humour allowed them to laugh at many situations that would evoke a sigh from others. Colin’s face crinkled into a smile as he looked at their projections; apart from his worry about Audrey’s forecast need for false teeth in her sixties, he felt good about what he saw. Aurey was less concerned and even the prospect of Colin’s developing a snoring habit ( derived from his taste for beer and the shape of his epiglottis) was acceptable to her. The computer gave it’s blessing “ for a long and happy association”.
So the second hurdle had been crossed and the jubilant pair invited their close friends, Rita and Ken to join them for a celebratory candlelit dinner. The guest couple could be regarded as veterans of TRI-P, each having been stopped at one or other stage a few times. They had finally found each other and made the grade some two years previously. One compensation was that the computer saw any failure as it’s own failure - recombining couples were granted a much higher program version, second time around, to give them an increased chance of success. The SCB considered that unsuccessful singles in society would ultimately become unstable; they were to be dealt with very carefully.
“That computer came up with such cute questions” bubbled Audrey “ It asked ‘ How would you react to Colin going away on a 4 day business trip?’ When the heart monitor dropped ( I guess as I anticipated a fairly boring time ahead) it answered ‘ well done, my dear, now to section 5’”
“A good response” replied Rita, “ If your heart rate had risen, the machine wouldn’t have reacted ‘cutely’ - it would have interpreted either fear or lack of trust and marked you down.”
“Oh” said Audrey thoughtfully, at which Ken butted in with a toast to the most recent passes in TRI-P2.
But now to TRI-P phase three, the awful part. Audrey and Colin had submitted their full frame photographs and DNA samples to the huge computer , which was then programmed to produce a range of composite photographs forecasting what the children would look like, then a guess at the next two generations. Worse than this, the computer produced a probability of the children being able to find a mate...
The old threats to life had been totally eliminated midway through the 21st century and science, it was thought, could solve EBA ( Everything Bar AIDS). After all, hadn’t atomic explosions at the eye prevented hurricanes from threatening human life? No disease, bar AIDS and the common cold* had survived man’s medical genius. Education for all had been instrumental in wiping harmful narcotics from the face of the earth just by exposing all children to the awful truth? And joblessness had ended centuries before. There was no end to problems that had once been seemingly insoluble and
which no longer existed.
But something as basic as a person’s appearance persisted as a difficulty. Ugly people were just not liked by the opposite sex and they found pairing difficult. If ugly children were predicted for a prospective couple, the computer could count them out.
Colin gazed into Audrey’s eyes adoringly and kissed her ample mouth. She loved the feel of his being close, and nestled contentedly. “ Why should Test 3 be so important?” she asked passionately. “After all once you get to know
someone, who cares what they look like - it’s what goes on inside that counts.” Colin’s gaze focused slowly and he gave a reply that showed he understood how the computer was programmed. “ You’re quite right, my dear, it’s immaterial once things get going. But the SCG argues that getting
* though not curable, the cold could be prevented.
things kick-started is the difficulty - an ugly child has huge difficulties just getting to know someone of the opposite sex; that then breeds insecurity
which leads to even lower chances of a match. I know it’s all theoretical, but apparently the statistics bear the machine out.”
Audrey didn’t like her beau’s explanation, but accepted it.
Some couples had secretly attempted plastic surgery in order to circumvent the computer’s stringent third test. However the criminality of such an act was obvious - photographs of rebuilt faces might help a couple to pass the test, but the computer projection of progeny would be false. Crucially the probability of more ugly children would be increased, thus defeating the SCB’s intention. Thus plastic surgery had been totally outlawed, and the sentence under law, even for attempting to persuade a surgeon, was heavy.
There was no escaping it - you just had to like the look of your mate in his or her natural state, both now and in the future.
Colin and Audrey gazed at their Test 3 results. The computer had considered it’s verdict and generated photo’s ranging from plain to grotesque. The old adage about “only a mother could love a child like that” applied - both looked with fondness on the pictures presented to them. But Colin knew that their race was run - the mate-finding percentages for the projected children ranged from 9% to 23%, just too low.
The couple that had battled long and hard felt bitter about this slip at the last stride. Audrey looked up and a tear sprang from her small eye. “What now, Col? Couldn’t we take a chance on 23%, or ask for another test? ” she asked.
“Try it” he said, knowing it to be a hopeless suggestion. She addressed the computer requesting acceptance. “Too low” it shot back ”and the second generation looks worse”. Desperate, she tried “But the accuracy of the second generation isn’t good”.
The computer didn’t even bother to reply and shut itself down. Colin knew when it wasn’t right to sustain hope; he embraced her, kissed her forehead tenderly, and whispered “ What an awful world we live in. I guess we’ll each have to start all over again.”
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