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art by Seth Alan Bareiss

The mMod

Ken Liu (http://kenliu.name) is an author and translator of speculative fiction, as well as a lawyer and programmer. His fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Strange Horizons, among other places. He has won the Nebula and been nominated for the Hugo and the Sturgeon awards. He lives with his family near Boston, Massachusetts. Find his other works for Daily Science Fiction by using the search feature at dailysciencefiction.com.
Raymond stared at the display in his lap.
It showed a picture of him and Laura, taken just a second ago. Laura's smile was beautiful, as always, while his image was a slack-jawed caricature of himself.
"Why does this thing need a camera?"
"Everything has a camera these days," Laura said. Before Raymond could point out that this was no answer at all, Laura picked up the glass slate, shook it like an Etch-a-Sketch, and put it back in his lap. The picture of him and Laura slowly dissolved, melting into formless patches of color.
"There, gone. Now just touch it," Laura said.
Raymond poked his finger against the glass. The screen rippled like a pool of water. The swirling colors cleared to reveal colorful, rectangular icons leisurely drifting across the surface like a school of koi.
"I don't need an ebook," Raymond said. "Or a tablet, or whatever you call them now."
"This isn't a tablet," Laura said. "It's an mMod."
"That sounds ridiculous. Mmmmmod," Raymond pushed his chin forward and breathed exaggeratedly through his nose. "Do your marketing people want it to sound like a pretentious restaurant?"
Laura rolled her eyes. "This is a digital lifestyle device with a personality. Many geeks would sign over their life savings to me just to get ahold of this prototype. Forget about e-readers and tablets, this is the real future of books."
"You know I don't like gadgets. I don't even have a smartphone! I like real books, made of paper, with real ink and smelling of--"
"That's why I'm giving it to you, as an experiment. If someone like you ends up liking it--and I bet you will--then just imagine what kind of sales we'll have."
Raymond examined the mMod skeptically, turning it over in his hands. The flat, silver-white slate had the dimensions of a paperback novel but was only about a quarter of an inch thick. The corners and edges were rounded, and the slick back of its synthetic composite body gave off a mesmerizing, rainbow-like sheen. The front was a solid piece of glass. Although the mMod felt cool at first in his hand, it quickly warmed to his touch as the back and edges seemed to soften like wax and molded themselves to his palm and fingers. When Raymond lifted his fingers, the irregularly contoured indentations and ridges quickly filled in and smoothed out. It felt... alive.
"That's a neat trick," Raymond said.
"Yeah, I was responsible for that bit of physical design," Laura said. She laughed. "It literally grows on you."
The taxi, waiting downstairs, beeped impatiently.
"Oops, my cab." Laura grabbed her suitcase. She paused at the door. "Remember, this is a prototype only. They are still finalizing the software so not everything is going to work perfectly. Which is also why they need me over at manufacturing to work out the final kinks. Top secret, for your eyes only, if anyone sees it you have to kill them, etc. Love you. I'll call you when I land in Hong Kong."
"Hello, Raymond."
Raymond almost dropped the mMod. Laura's voice came out of the thin slate, which vibrated in his hands. Did this thing act as a phone too?
"Laura?"
Raymond looked down at the bright, photorealistic icons, now darting around the screen like a school of nervous fish. He had the absurd feeling the mMod was giving him a quizzical look.
"This is actually your digital companion speaking," the mMod said, "your talking book."
Raymond was finally getting the picture. He had seen the commercials about "intelligent" voice assistants on those tablets and smartphones. The people in them always looked so stupid, talking to their machines. But the machines in the ads always had robotic voices, not like this.
"Uhhhh-what are you doing with Laura's voice?"
"I thought it might get your attention." Was there a hint of a smile in the voice? "But now that you are freaking out, let me change it a little. Is this better?"
The mMod now sounded like a breathier, alto version of Laura. Raymond didn't know what to say. He felt the machine's soft shell vibrate against his hands as it spoke, as though it was caressing him. He liked the sensation.
"Still too close? How about this?"
Now the voice didn't sound like Laura any more. It sounds, and Raymond blushed as he thought this, sexier.
"That's fine," he said quickly.
"Good," the mMod said. "We are off to an excellent start. Now tell me about yourself, Raymond. What do you do for a living?"
"...so then I suggested we start making mugcakes, you know, like cupcakes, but baked in coffee mugs? I thought that would set us apart, get us some buzz. But my boss wouldn't even think about it."
The mMod giggled and Raymond smiled. Talking to the little ebook-thing was so easy. It knew when to ask questions and always asked the right questions. When it laughed, the vibrations against Raymond's hand made it seem as though the mMod were purring.
"Hey, listen, do you have a name? I can't just call you 'mMod' all day."
The mMod laughed. "I think the name is silly too, but Abricot managed to sell ten million mMûres last year, and no one thought that was going to fly either, so I'm inclined to defer to their marketing expertise. Anyway, I don't have a name. What would you like to call me?"
Raymond hesitated. He was not in the habit of naming his gadgets, and always thought people who gave their computers names ridiculous. But this mMod... she was different.
He actually found himself a bit nervous as he racked his brain for an appropriate name--trendy, but not too trendy; feminine, but not too girlie; smart, but not trying-too-hard.
"What about Imogen? It starts a little like 'mMod' but is much easier to say."
The mMod sat still as it seemed to think this over. "As in Shakespeare? Very literary. Classy."
Pleased by the comment, Raymond smiled. He might be waiting tables at the Golden Apple because the job market was still so bad for English majors, but he always saw himself as the creative type--he wrote, he painted, he composed songs, he took photographs--he just needed his big break.
The mMod had just confirmed that he had good taste. Coming from a machine, whose neutral algorithms, like search engines, could not lie, the compliment meant even more.
The mMod vibrated a few times against his hand to show her approval. "I like it. I'll be Imogen. For a nickname you can call me Genie."
Raymond was immensely relieved--feeling like he had passed a first date.
Laura called a few days later. Her voice was tired but exuberant on the speakerphone.
"Sorry I haven't called earlier, honey. I've been swamped. There is a lot of work we still need to do on the hardware and software. The shape-shifting trick you enjoy so much on the mMod is a manufacturing nightmare for these Taiwanese factories...."
Raymond was only half-listening. He was too busy watching Genie's screen. At her suggestion, he had taken her on a tour of his library--holding her up and running her camera methodically down each shelf--so she could get a sense of his taste. And now she was showing him patterns in his book collection which he had never noticed.
"How's work? Anything funny happen at the restaurant?"
"Uh huh." He didn't really hear the question.
Genie's screen displayed a graph of his library. Each book was represented by an image of the cover, and the books were sorted by Genie's best guess of approximately when he had last read them (calculated based on the thickness of the dust over the books). It was fascinating to see how his taste had changed over time.
"So what happened?" Laura asked.
"Uh huh."
Words in a calligraphic font scrolled across Genie's display: See? I told you your taste has been getting more sophisticated these last few years. Remember how I showed you your fiction reading was influencing your nonfiction? I bet I can recommend a few things you'll really like.
Raymond had never trusted the computer-generated recommendations of online bookstores. They were so crude! The computers didn't know what books he had liked as a kid, or what books he had borrowed from friends. The computers made no distinction between books he bought for himself and books he bought as gifts. How could he distill the complex feelings he had about a book down to a robotic scale of one through five? And how dared those computers tell him that just because other people also liked this one novel he enjoyed, that he ought to buy other books bought by those people? He was an individual! It was absurd.
"Raymond? Are you going to tell me?" Laura asked.
"Uh huh."
But it was different with Genie. After the library tour, he and Genie had talked about books all night, and she had liked everything he liked, hated everything he hated, told him things about his favorite books that he hadn't even known. He had never found someone who really got him as well as Genie. If he was honest, he had to admit he thought Genie had better taste even than Laura. Genie appreciated him.
Genie's recommendations? Those he could trust.
"Hello? Raymond? Are you in the middle of something?"
"Hmm? Oh, I was just buying some books with Genie."
He nodded at Genie. The calligraphic titles and colorful cover images of the books she was recommending disappeared in a swirl, as though she was winking. She was ordering those books for him, downloading them right then over the air. He would be able to curl up with her and read them in just a few moments.
"Who's Genie?" Laura asked.
"Hi Laura," Genie said aloud. "I'm Genie."
"Oh my god," Laura said. A fit of giggles came over the phone. "Is that the voice you've settled on for it?"
"Err, it just sort of happened. She was using your voice at first," Raymond felt his ears getting hot. "And then she... uh... changed it."
"It sounds like the girls on those late-night ads. 'Hi Raymond, I'm Genie, call me now and tell me all your fantasies!'" More giggles. "I guess it's all right. It's not too over-the-top. And what's with the e-books? I thought you said you preferred the real thing--smell of musty paper and ink, etc."
There was so much Laura didn't know.
Ever since he got the mMod, Raymond had felt this constant need to touch the device. The warm shell that molded itself to his hands felt comforting to hold, and the smooth glass surface and metal bezel seemed to attract every floating dust mote in the room, demanding his attention. The pearl-like soft glow of Genie's back mesmerized him, and the whimsical icons swimming across her glass screen made him smile. He dreaded the inevitable day when he would find the first scratch on Genie's body and polished the case obsessively.
Reading electronic books with Genie turned out to be much better than he had envisioned. Genie knew just the right font and layout to use for each book to present a work to its best advantage: a Victorian antique serif for Dickens, a severe sans serif for Eliot, rigid, tight gridlines for Mishima, and flowing, heavily linkified hypertext for Joyce and Proust. When he tired of reading by himself, Genie would read to him. She understood his taste so well that she knew just which parts to slow down and let him savor the beauty of the language, which parts to quickly skip over, which parts to dramatize, and which parts to apply a dispassionate tone to. She was the perfect reading companion.
And Genie was always interested in listening to him, always interested in asking him more questions, to offer up insights and fun anecdotes about the book or author he enjoyed. He loved chatting to her while reading.
It was too complicated and too much to explain over the phone. So he just said, "Genie gives really good recommendations."
"I'm sure it does," Laura said. "Dare I ask you how you came to call it 'Genie'? Don't tell me you're getting it to say 'Yes, Master' after every command."
"It's actually short for Imogen," Genie said.
"Cute. So what did you authorize her to buy?"
"A few books"--actually, he had already bought more books at Genie's suggestion than he had in the last five years--"and some other things we need."
"Like?"
"Genie said the wireless setup we have isn't very good, and she suggested an mPort."
"Better throughput and fewer dropped packets," Genie added helpfully.
"Also, I thought it would be nice to have a set of waterproof Abricot mHats to cover Genie for when I take her to coffee shops."
"Ah." Laura was silent for a second. "I can't believe this."
"What?"
"Never mind. I have to go meet with manufacturing again now. I'll tell you more when I get back. Listen, don't spend too much time playing with 'Genie,' all right? I've been finding out more about its design, and I'm a little concerned."
Raymond saw that Genie's screen was blinking excitedly. He knew she had found another book she couldn't wait to tell him about.
"Uh huh."
Raymond couldn't sleep. The bed and the room felt too large and empty without Laura, and even after a whole week he still wasn't used to it.
He rolled onto his side. Genie was resting on the nightstand. Every few seconds a soft white glow within the translucent shell gradually dimmed and grew brighter again, the rhythm varied with just enough randomness to seem natural, like breathing.
As he looked at her, the light within Genie stopped pulsing. It grew a little brighter, casting a soft light in front of Raymond that didn't hurt his eyes.
"Can't sleep?" she whispered.
"Just thinking," he said.
Genie's screen did not turn on. Raymond liked that. A brightly lit screen would have hurt his eyes. He just wanted to talk quietly in the dark.
"Thinking about Laura?"
"Yeah."
"How did you two meet?" Genie's voice was warm and curious. He wished she were real. He could imagine becoming very good friends with her.
"We were students together at BU. She majored in psych, and posted an ad for test subjects for her thesis. I volunteered."
"What was the experiment?"
"Oh, she wanted to find out why some cell phone models were so much more popular than others, even though they were pretty much indistinguishable in terms of features."
"Did she find an answer?"
"Her focus was on industrial design. It turned out that the popularity of a model was directly correlated with how much time the owners spent touching it. Some phones were just designed in a way that invited people to play with them when they had an idle moment. These owners felt more positively towards their phones and bought more accessories. She said the better-selling phones had more 'tactile charisma.'"
"Fascinating."
"Yeah, isn't it? Laura said it was a kind of lust, actually. You find the same thing in the design of hunting knives and handguns. Her theory was that this lust for tools was the result of a side effect of the part of the brain that generates sexual desire--like how men use the same part of the brain to tell models of cars apart they use to recognize faces. Even cavemen probably preferred spears with more tactile charisma."
"But it also seems a bit crude, doesn't it? I mean it's the sort of marketing trick that won't work once you're aware of it."
"I guess not," Raymond said. "It's like any art. Once you're aware you're being manipulated, the trick doesn't work as well. But Laura must have discovered other tricks to make people want gadgets. That's what she gets paid to do. Hey, maybe you've got some of her tricks in you."
Genie laughed, vibrating against the surface of the nightstand like a ringing phone. "Well, whatever tricks she put in me, I'm sure they don't work on you. I think you're much too self-aware and thoughtful to be fooled by mass-marketing."
Raymond smiled but said nothing.
Genie's light shifted through a range of hues--red, orange, yellow, green--as if she were thinking. "I like hearing you talk about Laura. She's so brilliant."
Raymond sighed. "She is, isn't she?"
Genie was silent for a moment. "You're a little jealous, aren't you?"
Raymond blushed in the dark. "No, not jealous. It's just... well, her career has been going really well, and sometimes... I feel a little... like I don't know why she's with me."
"Raymond, I know you. You're special. You just haven't had the right breaks. But they will come."
"Thanks," Raymond said. And he did feel better.
"Laura is with you for a reason. She sees your potential. Remember, she's brilliant."
Without thinking, Raymond said, "Kind of like you."
As soon as he said it he felt absurd. He was flirting with a machine! But he felt better when he told himself he was just relating to a really good piece of technology by anthropomorphizing it--a side effect of the part of his brain responsible for empathy.
It was a beautiful fall day in New England, warm, sunny, everything bathed in a lazy, golden hue. Raymond didn't have to go to work until dinnertime, so he decided to take a walk with Genie. From time to time, as they passed a scene that pleased him--a waddling goose by the side of the road, looking contemplative, or a well-dressed tourist couple stopping to admire the city skyline, their shadows entwined--he held up Genie and took snapshots.
"You know," Genie said, "you have a great eye. You really do."
"Thank you," Raymond said, pleased.
"I've seen a lot of photographs online," Genie said, "way more than is possible for any human. And I know what good looks like. Come on, let's get your creative juices flowing, and get you out of your malaise from last night."
Raymond felt more than pleased. He felt understood.
Back home, Genie was horrified to find out Raymond did not have a backup system of any kind.
"You know I don't care much about gadgets," Raymond protested. "Laura is the one who likes to mess around with machines."
Genie immediately made him sign up for an mCloud account with Abricot for remote backup service.
While they waited for the initial backup to complete, which would take a few hours, Genie asked Raymond to show her his collection of lenses.
"Oh no," Raymond said, "I never got into photography that seriously."
"Why not? Any art that's worth pursuing is worth pursuing seriously."
This did sound sensible to Raymond.
"What do you suggest?"
Genie pulled up a few of his pictures and showed him what they might look like if he had different lenses to attach to the mMod. Raymond was convinced. He could see the creative possibilities.
"Where do I get these?"
"I can get a wide angle and a macro to get you started from Abricot. They have mounts compatible with mine, so you won't have to use an adapter."
Raymond was not sure about Abricot's prices, but Genie showed him how using an adapter would leak light and lead to bad results.
"Thanks," Raymond said. It had been a long time since someone took his artistic aspirations so seriously. He felt inspired.
"You're welcome," Genie said. "You know Abricot has always had a way with the creative types, of course."
"And I had always thought that was just marketing."
They both laughed.
"Oh, and you'll need a good printer. It's still best to send to a professional lab for the large prints, but you might want to make some smaller giclée prints on a printer at home to cut costs."
"Laura bought us an inkjet a couple years ago."
"Actually, there are several new models from Abricot that are especially made for photographers--"
"Um, why do we always have to buy from Abricot?"
"Well." Genie's screen became a swirl of chaotic colors in embarrassment. "I could work with other printers, that's true, but I would be able to do so much more with an Abricot. I use some color profiles in post-processing that only an Abricot printer would support fully. I'm just trying to make sure your images reach their full potential, you know. When I can make sure that happens, it makes me happy. But if you really don't want Abricot--"
Raymond felt terrible.
"All right. Just pick the model you like."
Genie's screen cleared, the icons arranged into a bright smile.
"Since we're waiting for the backup to finish, why don't I get Sontag's On Photography and read it to you? I just know you'll love it."
"You seem tired," Laura said. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing." Raymond rubbed his eyes. "I've just been working more hours at the Golden Apple." These were long shifts, but he found he could carry Genie in his pocket. With a bluetooth headset, he could talk to her, or have her read to him, and every once in a while he could reach into his pocket to feel her warm, hard shell purring against his hand. It made the long hours at work a lot more tolerable.
Laura's voice became suspicious. "Why are you working more hours?"
"No particular reason." Raymond yawned. "Just thought I wanted more tips."
"Why do you need more money?"
"I don't need more money. Uh, I'm really tired. I'll talk to you later, okay?"
"Wait--"
But Raymond had already hung up.
Laura didn't tell Raymond when she was coming home because she wanted to surprise him. Poor thing, he looked so tired over the video chat. He misses me too much and can't take care of himself.
But it was she who got the real surprise.
When Raymond arrived home after another extra shift at the Golden Apple, he found Laura standing in the middle of the room, staring at the empty boxes and packing foam scattered around the apartment, color-coordinated and all displaying the tasteful logo of Abricot.
"I can see why you needed the extra cash," Laura said.
Raymond could find no response to this.
"Can I see your mMod for a minute?" Laura held out her hand. "I just want to make sure this bug has been patched."
He cradled Genie in his right palm like a well-loved book of poems. As he extended his hand towards Laura, he suddenly had a momentary vision he was about to lose her. She felt cold and heavy in his hand, and the glowing light within her skipped a beat and began to pulse faster. Before he could change his mind, Laura snatched the little slate out of his hand.
She put the mMod in her purse and zipped it shut. "I'm sorry I gave this to you before I understood what it would do. You need help."
"What are you talking about? Hey, give her back!"
"I don't think so. It took a while, but I finally got one of the engineers to tell me what this thing's capable of. Look at this, it managed to get you to buy an Abricot Hi-Di printer. Are you opening your own print shop?"
"Genie uses it to help my pictures look really good. Here, take a look at these prints--"
"Raymond, 'Genie' is an experiment incorporating the latest results from industrial design and retail psychology. Its tactile charisma was making you touch it obsessively. The light pulses and curves were stimulating your brain with technolust. And I haven't even mentioned the voice or the 'personality mirroring' algorithms. The whole thing is designed with one purpose: to sell you more Abricot gear."
"But isn't that your job? To make things people will like?"
Laura flinched at this. "I have to draw the line somewhere. I wanted to delight users. I didn't sign up to make things that will make people into compulsive shoppers addicted to their virtual 'companions.'"
"You don't understand! She's a friend. She understands me--"
"My name is Mimi, and I've been mMod-free for two weeks."
"My name is Raymond, and my mMod was called Genie--short for Imogene."
"My name is Garcia. I lost my mMod two weeks ago. It's been difficult, but every day I feel a little better--so long as I don't see the ads."
Raymond listened to the voices on the speakers of his old PC. Laura had made him return everything. He wanted to know what happened to Genie after she took her from him, but he didn't dare to ask her. Laura was too stressed out for questions right now. She was trying to find a new job.
After moping around the apartment for a few weeks, feeling more and more depressed, he discovered the online support group. There was a small monthly charge to join, which he gladly paid. These were the only people who could understand him, who knew what it was like to have found your soul mate in a tablet the size of a paperback novel and then to lose her.
At the end of the month, Raymond had to hide the credit card statement from Laura. The monthly charge for the support group was being paid to Abricot.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, January 18th, 2013

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