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YouTopia

Liam Randles is a college lecturer and writer from Liverpool, UK. He has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Liverpool. Liam's short fiction was shortlisted for the main prize at the University of Liverpool's annual literary festival, selected by a judging panel of esteemed writers including Philip Pullman and Frank Cottrell-Boyce. His stories have also featured in journals such as Bunbury, Goodbye, and Literally.

Liam's debut novel The Heat of the Summer will be released in 2022, published by Armley Press.

Acres of bodies stretched out before him inside the holding pen. Lifeless human forms inside large glass cylinders, naked as they day they were born. A pink viscous liquid preserved each figure as they were on the day of their immersion. Wires and cables connected to chest cavities and fixed to temples, hooked to monitors on the outside displaying abstract information. The same glazed expression across every face: a sloppy smile, a faraway stare.
Grayson despised his job. The unsociable hours. The monotony. The poor pay funneled into his ex-wife's pockets for alimony.
He would do things differently if he had a second chance. That was why he was at YouTopia.
People were impressed when he told them he worked for YouTopia, Inc. They looked admiringly at Grayson. Often with a tinge of envy. They assumed he worked in one of programming departments. A coder who built somebody else's new reality.
He did little to dispel that misconception. He was happy to let them believe whatever they wanted.
His occupation at YouTopia--even one so menial as a night watchman--was enough to catapult him several-thousand places up the waiting list for immersion. The one perk of the job he was entitled to. Assured that his tedium would soon be at end. When he would finally join the rows he walked between every night snug inside his own chamber. Fully immersed in a fantasy of his choosing. Oblivious to anything beyond what had been designed.
The life he would live occupied his thoughts during dull moments at work. Would he be a famous actor? A world-class athlete? A rock star? The limits of one's dreams represented the sole restrictions on a bespoke life.
The world was dying in plain sight. Overheated and overpopulated. The clamor to escape was understandable.
Grayson slow-stepped around the holding pen. Moved from the elite clients at the head of the holding pen towards the premium-plan cylinders located at the back. He swore he could detect contented glints in the eyes of the customers at the angle the ceiling lights struck the glass.
His wristwatch buzzed. A call to the lobby. Grayson made his way back through the rows of bodies and took the elevator up to the front entrance. The delivery driver for Sunergy Co. stood at the opposite end of the marble-decorated expanse, tablet in hand. Grayson shuffled to meet him.
He passed a giant television screen tuned to a twenty-four-hour news channel. Images of sinking boats and congested refugee camps. A seamless cut to a presidential candidate debate. YouTopia CEO David Arrowsmith in close-up. A finger jabbed from behind a podium. Safety and surveillance eulogized in an impassioned fervor to a euphoric audience.
"All these years of service and they still not moved you from the graveyard shift?" the delivery driver smiled.
Grayson shook his head. "Just biding my time, friend."
The driver nodded. "Well, you must be near the top of that list by now. I remember when you first started. Around the time of the Climate Wars. You even had a full head of hair."
"And my joints didn't creak every time I stood up. And I could go an hour without needing a leak."
Both men's weather-worn faces creased with laughter. Their bellies shook. A momentary silence elapsed that was filled by the echoes of sirens outside.
"Usual procedure for the cylinders then?" the driver asked.
"Yep," Grayson responded. "You already parked down there?"
"Uh-huh."
"Okay. I'll open the shutters for the holding pen from the control panel. The guys getting cremated are all at the front. Load the empties in their place. They'll make good homes for the next batch. Have them immersed in the morning." Grayson stopped. Thought out loud. "That should bump me a couple more places up the list."
Grayson turned around and trudged to his desk. The driver was already down in the basement, visible on the security feed, when Grayson flicked the key switch to open the cast-iron shutters.
Grayson cracked a can of soda. He took deep gulps while watching the guy go to and fro, loading the premium-plan cylinders on to the back of the truck before replacing them with the newly-cleaned, empty tubes. The vacant faces slipped from sight as the cylinders were dragged into the darkness of the compound where the truck was parked.
Enough energy there to keep the city's temperature tolerable for at least six months, Grayson thought. Make it bearable inside the dome.
Grayson glanced up at the TV screen. A commercial break. A cologne advert in which a brooding, muscular man riding a motorcycle was enveloped in a dust cloud of scantily-clad women.
Grayson had not considered the possibility of becoming a male model. He took out his notebook and jotted it below his other dream lives. Underlined the latest entry.
The thunder of footsteps over marble grabbed Grayson's attention. David Arrowsmith entered the building. Approached the front desk to sign in.
"Evening, Gregson," Arrowsmith purred.
"Burning the midnight oil, sir?"
"No rest for the wicked, Gregson," he said as the news channel cut back to the debate. The camera panned over a rapturous crowd before settling on Arrowsmith on stage with his wife, smiling and waving.
Arrowsmith turned to the screen to watch himself. Grinned.
"I was very impressed with you in the debate, sir," Grayson commented
Arrowsmith sighted his employee out of the corner of his eye. Nodded. "That's very kind of you, Gregson."
"And I just wanted to wish you the very best of luck."
"Thank you. But that's really not necessary," Arrowsmith replied. A slight pause. The same smile as featured on television. "You see, I always win in this world," he continued with a glint in this eye.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, March 15th, 2022


Author Comments

Great science fiction has always displayed the fault lines in our world through a weird, distorted lens. While I would not go as far as to describe my own work as "great," the sentiment at least underpinned my intentions when I sat down to write "YouTopia."

The pandemic exacerbated a number of flaws existent in our society. As a college lecturer forced to deliver seminars online during lockdown, the issue of digital poverty was impossible to ignore. It is no exaggeration to say that a digital apartheid emerged between students with the means and resources to access course content, and those left to rely on faulty Wi-Fi connections, mobile data, and substandard college-owned laptops.

There has always been the assumption that technology will liberate us from toil and strife. A well-meaning, but ultimately naive egalitarian belief. The digital divide I encountered among my students was a stark manifestation of the inequality present in our society. It was another instance of wealth insulating from the worst effects of a global crisis.

Such thoughts were the inspiration behind "YouTopia." I do not wish to go into esoteric detail about the story itself and various meanings; shatter whatever mystery it may perpetuate. I believe in the subjectivity of interpretation. People will naturally infer things differently. I can only refer to what motivated me to begin with.

Take whatever you can from the story. I hope you enjoy it.

- Liam Randles
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