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We Planted The Sad Child, And Watched

Rahul Kanakia is a science fiction writer who has sold stories to Clarkesworld, the Intergalactic Medicine Show, Daily Science Fiction, Redstone, Nature, and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. He currently lives in Baltimore, where he is enrolled in the Master of the Fine Arts program in creative writing at Johns Hopkins University. He also serves as a First Reader for Strange Horizons. He graduated from Stanford in 2008 with a B.A. in Economics and he used to work as an international development consultant. Please visit his blog at blotter-paper.com and/or follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/rahkan.

Though he would stand on overpasses and watch the sleek inhuman cars whirring past on the interstate underneath and wonder if there was a place on this earth more alone than surrounded by the tens of millions, the billions, of us, I was always with him.
Long before he was born, I was with him.
I'd waited for his birth. Our genetics were not perfect. Such imperfections were expected: they were neither a cause for dismay, nor for greater efforts. He was the decimal point we had rounded off long ago. Thirty years ago, my predecessor had encountered much resistance to his proclamation that the era of genetic strengthening was over. The thousands of years, the trillions of dollars, the lives destroyed and redirected, in order to reach this point, and now he wanted to stop?
But the cost/benefit analysis was clear. No matter how satisfying it would be to fully eliminate those pernicious genes, their presence was unlikely to cause enough sadness to outweigh the cost of eliminating them.
So I knew he would come into existence. And I knew that, somehow, he would come to our attention.
"There's nothing wrong with him," I said, when his parents came to our institute all-unknowing, dragging him sullen, quiet, through the doors.
"But his tests," they said. "He's underperforming."
I looked at the two of them and tried to perceive the strains of melancholy with which they'd impregnated their child. Did his father stare too long at the walls, thinking the same thoughts again and again? Did his mother stay late at her work, not knowing she was trying to muster the energy to come home? But no, the recessive poison was too well-veiled to manifest in them. They were over thirty years old. If the program had taken notice of them, suggestions would have been embedded. It would simply never have occurred to these two to reproduce.
I was curious about the boy. There will be too many of him, infinitely many, over the coming millions of years. Only a few thousand years ago, the world was bursting with him. And our descendents won't have even our limited resistance to his type. Would he twitch and wriggle along our social-semantic networks? Would his city depopulate, its people driven out of their homes by the seemingly sourceless gloom that spread outwards from him?
I felt that gloom, even after just a few minutes in the same room with him. It felt as if the sunlight streaming through the windows catching the swirling motes of dust was not so bright. In his slumped shoulders all I could see was the sun setting and the ending of another ceaseless day. I pitied his parents. He'd brought a hell to their home that they were not born for.
"There is nothing wrong with him," I said. "Our testing has revealed certain rare genetic tendencies. But they were once quite common. And those who had them were well able to lead nations, compose symphonies, and reach high levels of achievement in all the fields of human endeavor."
"But he doesn't talk," his mother said. "He won't get out of bed in the mornings. He's not acting right."
"What do you think?" I said to the child.
"I feel fine," he said. "I don't know what everyone is so worried about. Can't we go home now?"
I was charmed. Fine, just fine.
"But maybe, isn't he… depressed?" his mother said. She had whispered the last, dreaded word. Her husband backed away a step, withdrawing from our circle of consultation. She continued. "I heard there is a factory. I heard it still makes the medicines."
"Not depressed," I said. "Simply… less joyful. He sees life differently. It's all very normal. Every human being has a genetically-determined baseline emotional level that remains relatively constant throughout their life. It is only very loosely correlated with achievement. On average, rich people are no happier than poor people. Successful people are no happier than failures. Your son just falls on one end of the curve." A curve we'd spent millennia compressing...
When he left, I leaned back in my office chair, put my feet up on my desk, and cancelled the rest of my appointments. Could I make him happy? Was there a drug? Or a gene-therapy? Or should I? And for long moments, I wondered what he would bring to us. For the first time, someone like him would be… uncontrolled. Would he rise up and write his name across the sky? Would he bring back technological progress? Would he bring back war and conquest? Would he smash our paradise? Did we want him to? Would we--would I--rather be excited than happy?
Then, long after night had fallen, I smiled.
The record of a single day in the life of a single human being represents an immense amount of data: Passing records in video-monitors, phone conversations, biometric sensors, browsing histories, keystroke recorders… all multiplied by an entire circle of acquaintances, friends, and relatives.
Once, there was an entire industry devoted to analyzing this data. We'd had computers, heuristics, specialized programs, datasets, algorithms, and millions of people working out of thousands of centers. Over time, we'd devoted more and more resources to watching, and redirecting, smaller and smaller numbers of "risky" individuals. And then we did our job too well, and there were no more risks.
Now there was just my institute, and three others like it, to ensure that four billion souls didn't stray from the thought patterns we'd laid down for them. For the last decade, we'd largely been trying to squeeze a few more percentage points of wellbeing out of the age-old patterns. We carefully measured the influence of notions currently in vogue, and developed vectors to alter the range and meaning of words, phrases, ideas, myths, types of relationships, types of careers, morals, ethics, life-patterns, and all the other mental structures used to categorize the raw inputs of life.
We'd limited our range of vectors to the mass media: movies, television, email, graffiti, conversations on the street, carefully crafted virtual personas, technical manuals, comic strips, the color paragraphs of news stories, and hundreds of other seemingly sourceless bits of semantically-freighted noise. And that was more than enough, as long as there were no other sources of original thought, or any conflicts that could cause such thought to spontaneously arise.
But I refocused our energies. Those patterns were good enough. Our people were happy enough. For the first time in a century, we had a possible spoiling factor in our midst. He had to be watched.
Though we would not actively interfere in his life, we expected him to be destroyed. In preparation for this day, we had spent generations instilling a loathing for anti-social behaviors into the population. They would drive him out and ostracize him.
In those screens, I watched a young man, a classmate, draw into our subject's orbit and be disordered by the enchantments of melancholy. I watched them sit on a stoop together and, under the influence of so many grave and serious evenings with the sad child, laughter was erased from the friend's face and then from his mind, and replaced with a kind of ecstatic transportation that feels like nothing at the time, that is just the aether for birthing and devouring strange emotions, but in remembrance will be indistinguishable from joy. The sad child infected his classmate with the brooding ruminations, the twists and turns and wearings-down of the machinery of the mind, the endless, exhausting reflection that, in small amounts, mimics the symptoms of love.
And I watched the friend bounce out of our subject's orbit, ejected back into the world… save for the occasional glance backwards to see that yes there had been an effect, that our subject couldn't look at his once-comrade, that he had taken to bed, that he was not going to recover… a glance that ended, self-satisfied, far before mine, else it would have seen our subject take to the world again and again and charm one and another with the dim, flickering light of his attention.
And the sad young man wrote: "What does it feel like to be like them? Can't they see how absurd this is? How this life is barely worth living when even the best of times are only a few inches above the threshold of total despair?"
And my researchers wrote: "What is it like to be him?"
I had dreams that our subject would carry on the traditions of Camus, Sartre, Dostoyevsky, of that last great generation before the plan, before the institutes, had rendered those traditions moot.
Scribbling in notebooks, he wrote poetry, and we ran every line through semantic analysis. We tore the words apart and put them back together, knotting them around our minds and into our dreams until his thoughts became the vocabulary we used to describe ourselves.
He wrote: "That doctor said I wasn't like them. But there has to be a reason that people like me existed. Maybe we just saw more clearly. That long line of us looked into the world and saw what was there and communicated things that people didn't know they wanted to hear."
Then the words began showing up elsewhere. Miles away. Scrawled on walls and desks. Or in chance conversations. And, excited, we tracked them back. His city was the epicenter.
Hadn't I always secretly dreamed that he would tear us apart? That he would derail this stable endpoint of human history, this happy horrible ditch I'd dug deeper and deeper for my entire professional life? Had I always secretly hated it?
And our genius didn't notice. He grew into maturity, misunderstood but not disliked. His modes of being solidified: taking weeks to return a call where one of us would return it immediately; lapsing into silences in social situations; being late for his obligations; refusing responsibilities; forgetting names, faces, friends, forgetting all solid things once they were out of his sight.
He wrote: "I don't want to make them unhappy. They just need to see. They need to understand. They'll be better off that way. I live with them; I can make them see how irrational they're being."
Depressive realism is what primitive memetic engineers used to call it. It was the tendency of clinically-depressed patients to more accurately assess the (low) probability of fortunate events. Happiness was irrational. How could anything but irrationality explain the decision to buy a lottery ticket, start a business, or get married, when you had a 99.99999%, 90%, or 50% chance of failure?
One of my lead researchers brought me a set of regressions from the latest round of annual reports. Population growth and economic activity in his city had shot upwards. And the effects were tightly clustered around where he lived. The economic benefits were directly proportional to how much time he spent in a neighborhood. Stores where he shopped experienced a surge in profits. Authors he read climbed to the top of the sales charts. There was no doubt that his presence, his interest, was the strongest link between these otherwise inexplicable effects.
"What possible mechanism could there be for this?" I said.
"For the last three months, my team has been discussing a possibility," the researcher said. "It has to be semantic contagion. Why did it take our intervention to wipe out these genetic tendencies? Why did they not die out naturally? They are prone to suicide, drug abuse, over-eating, and unhealthy living. On average, their productivity is low. How did they survive? What advantage did these genes confer? One explanation has always been that of some mental power… some power of compulsion that is inherent in their twisted memeplexes. They attract healthy, productive, people to them, and find ways to live off the mounting excess."
"But this isn't destructive," I said. "Have indicators of well-being dropped? Have indicators of consumption dropped across the system? Where are these dollars, these people coming from? What's the effect on the system as a whole?"
"Neutral," the researcher said. "And hence unproductive. He's merely shifting resources from elsewhere."
"But if overall wellbeing isn't…"
"You have to neutralize him," the researcher said. "The organizational directives were never repealed. The necessary procedures still exist. There is even a team that still operates intermittently, when needed, out of the East Asia Pacific region."
"You're joking."
"The plan is ours, now. And we act not for today, or for one life, but for eternity. We've monitored this irregularity for long enough."
I laughed him out of my office. What would the world come to, if I had to rely on colleagues like that to protect the plan?
Sometimes it seemed like the growing excitement had even managed to infect the subject. Of course, he wasn't immune to joy. He just felt joy less keenly than the plan, long ago, had deemed desirable.
And his social-semantic networks, tenuous as they were, couldn't help but respond to the increased froth of the life just beyond his doorstep.
He'd aged into early adulthood and left home. An uncommon move. We preferred that adults stay close to their childhood social networks. This allowed for finer gradations of control and less semantic pollution between project areas.
People agglomerated to him. And this drifting cast began to fill the computer screens of our Institute, as the aggregation effort expanded and expanded to catch every glimpse, every conversation, every concretized thought involving him. The young men and women formed themselves into the furniture of his life. They sat on his couch, and drifted through the rooms of his apartment. They lived with him and fell in love with him, and talked about him, and some of them, so far as we could see, even managed to pierce his thoughts and become important to him.
At international conferences, my staff must have gossipped about our findings. During the biannual meeting of the directors of the four institutes, my colleagues gathered to question me.
"But what is the mechanism for this supposed effect?" the Beijing director said. He was the oldest of us, and I'd known him for my entire life. When I was a child, he spoke to me for half of an hour and then recommended that I be put on the director track. I'd never asked him why he'd chosen me, but I still wondered what the criteria had been.
"It doesn't matter," replied the Kinshasa director. He had only recently taken up his post. "This youth should not exist. My predecessor argued, thirty years ago, that we should carry the plan to its logical conclusion, and eliminate all possibility of such unpredictable elements ever arising."
"But don't you wonder?" I said. "What kind of creature did we eliminate? Why is he so powerful?"
"What are you saying?" said Brussels. The emissary from that barren, depopulated region rarely spoke. He rarely needed to. They'd shown us the way, long ago.
"He should not be having this impact," Beijing said. "He is not some magical creature. It is ludicrous to grant some incantatory power to low emotional well-being."
"Abraham Lincoln," I said. "Woolf, Byron, Blake, Dostoyevsky, Eliot, Lorca, Plath--"
"Have shown no surge in popularity as our program increased its efficacy. Rather the opposite, in fact. We've studied this. You've studied this. What is the mechanism for this young man's power?"
"Eliminate him," Brussels said.
"But what if we've eliminated some powerful aspect of the human spirit?" I said. "Something that all of us, everywhere, all of our 'happy' populations, secretly long for, and respond to, and love? How can we not study that?"
"And what if we did?" Kinshasa said. "People like your young man posed no Darwinian cost, or nature would have done our work for us. We always knew that. But we made a choice. And that choice was magnificent."
"Your reasoning is faulty," Beijing said. "This young man is neither dangerous nor worthy of study. If our plan was that weak, it would have collapsed long ago. Let him be."
Our arguments went round and round, deadlocking again and again. We preferred to come to decisions by consensus, but we eventually had to resort to the weak expedient of voting. Our final vote was 2-2, and as the most senior, Beijing decided the tie in my favor. More to the point, he possessed the only functioning assassination team, though Kinshasa hinted that he would not be above a unilateral cross-regional solution.
As we parted, Beijing took my hand. I could not recall the last time we had touched. Physical contact was uncharacteristic for him. He said, "You are the object of my only remaining personal bond. And sometimes I feel that even a single friend may be too many for someone in my position. The only dangerous component of this situation is the way you've become obsessed by this boy."
I froze in place, and he kept my hand. He glanced down, and then stared into my eyes for several seconds. His warning took hold. Releasing me, he said, "Take care."
When I returned to my institute, I ran the regressions in private, looking for where the boy's words had first shown up. Florida--during the period of the Everglades Wellness Project. Arizona--during the Cross-Border Harmonization Initiative. New York City, right after the yearly semantic remapping.
There was no magic. The boy was no genius. His words did not stick in minds and ride the highways and show up in distant cities and pull people towards him. We were the vector. We were the mechanism.
I'd devoted thousands of weeks of staff-time to watching this boy. I'd buried him in the minds of my staff. And he'd flown up and out and into the world during their other activities. Unconsciously, they snuck little bits and pieces of the boy's world--his city, his neighborhood, his stores, the habits of his friends--into their work. A tiny, harmless tilt, similar to that which occurred naturally all the time. But normally the personal range of preferences, carefully randomized amongst the staff, canceled out and devolved into noise. I'd harmonized them. I'd slammed the boy into their mental landscape. I'd endangered the plan.
The boy had written: "Sometimes I can feel the currents of the world changing around me. I can feel myself being injected into them, forcing them to see. I don't know precisely what is happening, but I know that somehow we're all working together, we're all going to slide out of this rut, and we're going to step into the future and finally manage to build something new."
Meanwhile, I swapped personnel with the other institutes. I sent the staff who'd been most involved in monitoring the boy on long-term assignments in the field, and rotated field staff back to headquarters. I gave a low priority to publications on the boy. I slowly altered the semantic networks of the Institute itself--I whispered into the computers that this phenomenon was an idiosyncrasy, that I was an old fool, and that watching one youth was a waste of time--and, in response, the effect he was having also cooled.
And then the day came when my paper was ready. It detailed the problem my passion had caused, the steps I'd taken, and recommended the institution of social-semantic interventions to prevent it. We'd long known that the only true danger to the plan was ourselves. But we'd finally reached the long-prophesied point where our control was so absolute that even our unconscious whims were a greater danger than any thoughts those four billion tamed minds could generate.
After I transmitted my paper, I received a call from Beijing. He said, "You've repaid my trust in you. You will go down in history for this. Well… our history."
I hope he never knew how close I'd come to not publishing that paper. How I'd delayed in even writing it. How, in the end, the habits of mind--the habits he'd beaten into me--had won.
But perhaps he did know. Four meetings later he came to me and said, "Your health is not good. Perhaps it is time for the system to take you?"
We all joked about the day we'd surrender ourselves to the plan and go out and live in the world. But it was not a joke. There was a system in place for each of us, created and continuously remapped from the very first day we entered the institutes.
"I haven't begun to look for a successor," I said, not bothering to protest that Beijing was in far worse health than me.
"We never expected that you would," he said. "You are the last Washington director. You have demonstrated our superfluity. We will become three. And, when I die, two."
"And someday none?" I said.
"Someday," Beijing said.
"And who has been in charge of developing my retirement plan?" I said.
"Me," he said. "It's always been me."
"So then tell me," I said. "Tell me what I do now?"
Beijing smiled and said, "Whatever you want. You know that."
I moved to the city of the boy. Except that he is now a man, and not young. And now I watch him through a window instead of a screen. Without my unconscious interference, the thought patterns we'd embedded in the population had done their work.
He is now alone. Does he wonder where everyone went? Does he wonder why this world has begun to ignore him? Does he wonder why he has been progressively forced to its fringes, and rendered invisible?
I see him walking down the street, hunched-over and broken. Was there really nothing there? Was that fascination just a mirage? Do I want it to be? Am I happy?
And as he walks by, I whisper, "Do something. Do something." And I don't know whether I'm talking to him or to myself.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, August 10th, 2012

Author Comments

After I began to write this afterword, I realized that my story is a re-telling of Brave New World. Ever since I read it in high school, my gripe with Huxley's novel has been that it is told from the point of view of the only person in the entire world who is unhappy. Aside from John, all the other characters--even the initially-dissatisfied Bernard and Helmholtz--end up being quite satisfied with their lives. And yet--despite the Brave New World clearly being a happier place for the vast majority of humanity than the world in which we live--the sheer ugliness of Huxley's world has been enough to indoctrinate millions of readers, including myself, with a distaste for utopian efforts to maximize human happiness. In this story, I tried to create a happy world that is more beautiful and less overtly coercive than Huxley's, and a Savage who is less heroic than John, in order to see whether these more nuanced constructs would elicit the same distaste.

- Rahul Kanakia
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