Pera Museum Blog is launching a new series of “Techno- Dystopia” stories in collaboration with Turkey’s Fantasy and Science Fiction Arts Association (FABISAD). The Association’s member writers are presenting newly commissioned short stories inspired by the artworks of Katherine Behar as part of the Museum’s Data’s Entry exhibition.
The first story “Cogito” is by Tevfik Uyar! Also there will be three more stories by Doğu Yücel, Funda Özlem Şeran and Aşkın Güngör! The stories will be published online throughout the exhibition. Stay tuned!
He had imagined the court room as a big place. It wasn’t. It was about the size of his living room, with an elevation at one end, with a dais on it. The judges and the attorneys sat there. Below it was an old wooden rail, worn out in some places. That was his place. There was another seat for his lawyer. At the back, about 20 or 30 chairs were stowed out for the non-existent crowd.
He had entered the court room as a defendant, and it took barely fifteen minutes for him to leave it as a convict sentenced to death. He remembered a few details: the crier had signed him to join his hands in front of him as he stood before the wooden rail. He obliged, standing there like a criminal. He also remembered the verdict being read out. He had turned to look at his lawyer, who had raised her thin eyebrows and bowed her head to one side. That was all. On the way back to prison, he tried to assure himself that all of this had not been a dream. Was it this easy to annihilate a body? Apparently, it was. Just two syllables.
Once they reached the prison nearby, he was told his lawyer was waiting for him in the visiting room. The lawyer, who had been appointed by the bar, sat there with her legs crossed, hands clasped in her lap, a blank notebook on the desk, waiting for him. The guards pointed at the chair, as if he wouldn’t be able to see it on his own.
The lawyer looked up and said, “I did all that I can, trust me.” What could she have done in such a short time? Had he missed it?
“But they dole out death sentences much more easily now,” the lawyer went on. “It’s not as if it’s a real death, you know…”
“Not a real death?” he thought. He laughed sarcastically, without being aware of it. “So it’s not a real death… What’s life anyway? Just knowing you exist?”
The lawyer, who would look really beautiful and attractive if she had taken off her glasses, let her hair down, and put on a little bit of makeup, uncrossed her legs and leaned forward, as if to say something confidential.
“You know what Descartes said – I think, therefore I am. As long as you continue to exist, it can’t be a real death. You will continue to think. And even to speak… You will still be able to communicate with your loved ones. You will be able to keep yourself up-to-date, watch the news… You know… Do many of the things a living person does. What more can you ask for? Would you have preferred to receive a prison sentence remain behind bars?”
The man thought; apparently, the lawyer thought communication consisted of speaking. Hugging the one you love, holding her hand, patting someone you are proud of on the back, shaking one’s hand in gratitude… Either she didn’t think these were forms of communication, or else she was just trying to comfort him.
“Let’s trade places if you find it so desirable,” the man said, leaning back. He still had a sarcastic expression on his face. He reached out to take a cigarette from the lawyer’s pack on the desk. Then he lit it with the lawyer’s slender lighter. His chubby fingers gave him some trouble doing that. “I won’t be able to smoke, for example, “he said, blowing the smoke. “I won’t be able to eat… I will never be able to hold a chicken leg and gnaw away at it, savoring its fried skin. I won’t be able to make sweaty love…” he added.
“Well, that’s to be expected… You’re convicted of murder. You took the life of someone else. That guy you killed won’t be able to do those things, either. You sentenced him to a cloud. Eye for an eye…”
Yes, he had killed a person. Death sentences were easy, and so was killing someone. And it was impossible to run or hide. The victim was also the witness.
What if he had defended himself by saying, “It’s not a real death, anyway”? Would it have worked? It was only the body of the victim that had died. All his consciousness was deposited in a data bank. Maybe he was talking with his wife right now. This could only appease his conscience.
“I’m sure his family will appeal. You are subject to the same conditions he is. I’m telling you, you’re lucky. And it’s not only about measure for measure. It’s a way of stopping murderers from inflicting harm on society again. That’s the way modern law works. Take it or leave it…”
“Whose side are you on anyway?” the man said. Narrowing his eyes, he took another puff from his cigarette.
“No one’s. I’m telling it as it is.”
“And what about this forced labor thing? What’s with making a dead man work?”
“Well, that’s what sets you apart from the victim. For four hours every day, you will substitute for an electronic processor.”
“As I said. You will be a mental laborer. Take the circuit that controls the doors of this place…”
“What about it?”
“Well, when someone hits the open button. It won’t be a computer that will open the door. You will. The open command will be given by your brain.”
“That’s ridiculous… Who needs that?”
“It is unnecessary, I agree… And yes, ridiculous! But it was ridiculous to put people behind bars with two square meters per person. That wouldn’t be a reasonable punishment. Punishment isn’t there to punish, it’s there to comfort the victim or their loved ones,” the lawyer said. She took of glasses, becoming prettier. She sat back and crossed her legs again. With her gown, she looked more attractive to the man. “There will be no women…” the man thought.
“There will be no making love… Can death be any worse?”
“What was I saying? It’s the Ministry of Justice keeping itself busy, that’s what it is. They say they let the executed convicts serve society, making them useful, while preventing them from becoming useless mental data sets on the cloud…”
The lawyer took a cigarette from the pack. The man quickly grabbed the lighter with his chubby fingers and lit her cigarette.
“Thank you, you’re very kind… Anyway. So the real point here is to take away your freedom for four hours a day,” she said. She was pouting her lips to form a narrow canal while blowing the smoke. The room was filled with smoke, causing the ventilation system to turn on. The man wondered whether it was another convict sentenced to death who turned the ventilation on.
“All right… So when will I die?”
“Technically, it’s impossible for you to die. You will already be dead.”
“Make up your mind, lawyer lady. You were just saying this wasn’t a real death?”
“But it’s not real life, either. Someone who doesn’t really live cannot really die. We can only talk about erasure. You will be deleted thirty years later.”
The man was thirty years old. He would “exist” for another thirty years. The Descartes kind of existence…
No food, no hunger. No love, no making love. No cigarettes, no beer, no feeling hot, no feeling cold, no sickness. Just the sense of existing in a void… From what he had heard, the human brain was unable to comprehend this void as it was, so it constructed a fake building for itself… Life happened within that building.
“What about that asshole?”
“Who… The man you killed?”
“Yes. The man I technically did not kill…” he said with a smirk.
“Oh, him. He’ll live for as long as he wants. He doesn’t need to be deleted. There are other differences as well. For example, he can use supplementary equipment. He can hook up to audio-visual sensors and feel the real world. You, on the other hand, will while away your time with virtual images in your virtual castle. Your only connection to the external world can be through writing. You’re not allowed to use supplementary equipment… Why do you keep comparing yourself to the victim anyway? He’s the aggrieved party… Get over it.”
“All right, all right,” the man said. There weren’t many people he could talk to anyway. “So how will people reach me?” he asked. That was a possibility…
“You will have your own cloud address. There’s an interface there. People can leave messages.”
“How will I access those messages?”
“Look… I’m no expert on this. I’ve just read about it here and there. I don’t know how your brain will construct that part. Some write like there is a computer there, some see messages like writings on the wall and communicate using a paint brush. That’s totally up to how your brain will interpret this quasi-external world and make it consistent, and unfortunately it’s nothing you can control. It’s very new… We’re still learning about it through individual experiences.”
“Got it… Tell me more about this labor camp.”
“Oh, come on,” the appointed lawyer said with exasperation. She had become impatient. It was all over, the death sentence had been given. What more was there to it? She was giving gratis advice… And she didn’t know the exact answers to the questions. Even if she did, she had no motivation to explain.
“There’s nothing to tell. Depends on your luck… Could be a power plant, an irrigation system, even a 3D printer… What do I know? They’ll fix you up with something according to your talents. Let me say this again. I did all I could. This is better than spending 40 years behind bars. Believe me… So don’t appeal the verdict, is what I’m saying. You do have three days, though. If you want to go ahead with it all the same, I’ll take care of it. That’s my job…”
After the meeting, the man was taken to a temporary ward. He was to wait here for the execution of his punishment. They had given him tons of documents. He had to sign some of them, and keep the rest for future reference.
His execution was scheduled for six a.m. three days later. The documents said his body would be connected to a machine, and his mind would be transferred to something called the “complete brain emulator” in three and a half hours. The emulator would create a mathematical model of his mind and turn it into a software. That software would then become him. “Complete death” punishment was forbidden, but this punishment didn’t count as that. The “Aims” section explained everything pretty much the way the attractive lawyer had done: “A procedure that does not entail actual death but aims to end the physical existence of the body in order to prevent the criminal from potentially committing new crimes…” and many other subheadings: the obligations of the convict, the obligations of the penal institution, amenities to be offered to the convict, prohibitions, permissions… There was a separate booklet for the labor camp but it was quite sketchy. It said a detailed description was impossible due to the personal nature of the experience… The man figured he would learn about it on the way. The one thing he found out was that he would receive a warning if he did not do as he was told. The second warning ended in “erasure.”
He spent his first day carefully reading the booklets. On the second day, he went back to them when he couldn’t remember certain details. For the greater part of the day, he thought about whether the man he had killed really deserved to die. Then he realized his victim might have received visual sensors and use hi “right to witness the execution” as the booklet called it. He shuddered at the thought…
On his last day, he thought about what life was. He walked around the yard. He didn’t talk with anyone about anything. He realized his feet looked very elegant and that putting your pinkie in your ear felt very good. He scratched his ass pleasurably.
What was the body? What was consciousness? Would he be able to feel his body? The mind was good at building castles to maintain consistency, and would probably create a body for him. This thought gave him comfort: he would fool around in the virtual world. He would experience the space that the depths of his mind would build for him. He thought that in time, he may be able to alter this space, but then decided that was not very probable. He had seen an animation once – a ballerina was doing a turn, but tome viewers she seemed to be turning clockwise, while to other she seemed to be turning counterclockwise. If you saw one, you could no longer see the other, and transition was just impossible. Apparently, it wasn’t that easy to change the things your brain attributed meaning to…
It must be boring to act like the information processing unit of a simple machine. How would his brain interpret that?
Since no one could experience the mind of someone else, everything ought to be subjective and unique. Which meant imagination went a long way. If he could master his mind through his imagination, creating his own heaven would be easy as pie. Maybe he could create any woman he wanted, in the king suite of his enormous palace… And wearing all kinds of different costumes – he really had the imagination for that sort of thing. Could he do it?
He was almost glad that he was to be executed, but this was a punishment, after all… It couldn’t be all that good. There had to be something that would keep him from having the things he dreamt and thought of. Otherwise, everyone would be gladly leaving behind their bodies. Come to think of it… He seemed to remember having read something to that effect in four or five news articles… They referred to a mid-20th century concept called “Real Virtuality.”His interest had been piqued at first, but then he’d gotten bored because he couldn’t understand the terminology. He hadn’t read about it, he hadn’t talked about it with any background. He had been so indifferent to the new habit of the age. He was sorry now. Ignorance was no bliss.
“Whatever,” he said out loud, as if there was someone else in his one-man cell. He looked around. “I guess my castle will be bigger than this,” he thought. “Whatever will be will be,” he said, and went to sleep.
In the morning, an imam and two guards came with heavy steps and stopped at his cell. They opened the door loudly and with a guard on each side, he was taken to the transfer room. His fears were unfounded – the victim and his family had not come to watch. The attractive lawyer, though, was there on duty. She wasn’t wearing a skirt this time, but a pair of high-waist pants. With a slender belt. She came over with a sad smile.
“Are you ready?”
“If you are going to be there, sure.”
He said that with the relaxed attitude of someone who would be dead a few minutes later. The lawyer pretended not to hear it, and whispered, “Your final wish has to be something corporal. They will ask you what you want. Think about it if you haven’t already.”
What could a corporal wish be? The man laughed. He still hadn’t thought of anything as they made him sit on the stretcher. A final kebab? Or rice pudding? Did they serve those, too?
“Do you have a final wish?” the executioner in white uniform asked him. He was probably a doctor or an engineer. The executioners had come a long way.
“Can I bum a cigarette, please?” the man said. That was probably something he would miss more than a kebab. “Oh, and could you scratch my back and tickle my belly?”
The executioner doctor and the guards looked at each other. The doctor blinked his consent. They gave the man a cigarette and lit it; one of the guards tickled him as he tried to protect himself by assuming the fetal position. Then the other guard scratched his back, doing a thorough job.
“Thanks, guys… You’re the best,” the man said happily. Then the imam came. He gave a speech that began with, “Every living body will turn to soil.” He probably had nothing fancy to say about consciousness. It was necessary to update the imams like the executioners.
“Here we go then,” they said. The verdict was read as a formality. Clerks scribbled some words on papers. .They made him sign them, which was the last time he held “a real pen” in his hand.
They put him back on the stretcher and tied him up. They gave him an injection in the arm and then inserted the top half of his body into the tunnel of the complete brain emulator. Buttons were pushed and keys were turned on the panel next to him. As all of his existence turned to ones and zeros, a funeral car parked by the back door of the building to take away his emptied body.
His feet really were elegant.
Written by Tevfik Uyar
Translated by G Yayın Grubu