Saturday, 19 March 2016

God Only Knows

Originally published in Hotshoe, photography by Chris Shaw

It turns out there is such a thing as reincarnation. I know this because I’ve been reincarnated as a cactus.

It sounds like a joke, which is fitting, because reincarnation certainly sounded like a joke to me in my former life. In my forties, certain friends – recently divorced or getting over drug habits – began to follow paths of spiritual enlightenment, filling their dreary suburban homes with joss sticks and carefully placed crystals, and one or two spoke to me about reincarnation as though it was no more shocking a prospect than Christmas, or a second cup of coffee. Personally I never gave the idea serious thought except as a child when the subject came up in a school assembly, and I briefly considered the benefits of coming back as a rock star or world leader. I never entertained the possibility that one might return as flora. Perhaps this is punishment for my scepticism.

And yet somehow it’s not that bad. I have the sand beneath me, the blue sea crashing a few hundred yards away, the celestial smear of the milky way arcing overhead each night – as a former amateur astronomer limited to stargazing from my back garden in light polluted south London, the latter is a limitless source of wonder. For entertainment, I get to ogle the antics of a fabulously rich young couple on the grounds of whose beach house I appear to be planted – their endless parties, their spectacular rows. Nor do I have any of the cravings associated with human life: no ambition, no desire to socialise or procreate – not that I managed to procreate in my former life (some would argue that I barely managed to socialise). I’m quite content to sit here for my allotted decades or centuries and do whatever it is cacti do to help planet Earth stay balanced.

Which seems to confirm a suspicion that occurred to me following my wife’s death, during a period when I was distancing myself from friends and spending more and more time alone with my telescope: it occurred to me that consciousness was a curse, that self reflection didn’t elevate humans above the rest of the natural world, but dragged them behind it. Look at ants, I would tell the few people still willing to meet up with me: they live and die as part of an unquestioning hive mind, working the same way cells or nebulous star factories work. Perhaps it is they who understand existence, whereas we – weighed down with the cumbersome question ‘why’ – are destined only for anguish and disappointment.

All of which is arguably interesting, though it doesn’t explain why I’m still able to think such thoughts; why I’m able to associate the sound of seagulls with images of my grandmother’s arthritic hands fumbling with the wrapper of a Cornetto on Bridport seafront. If I’m now part of Earth’s unquestioning hive mind, why am I still cursed with memories of the life preceding this one? Why do I still think of myself as Marcus Whitworth of Blackheath, south London? Is this part of some punishment? Is it a mistake, the result of a corrupt file on the divine hard drive? Or is there something even more unusual at work?

This last possibility occurred to me a couple of days ago, when I realised that the house in whose grounds I stand is the property of Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys. I’m guessing that it’s currently the mid 1960s, somewhere between the high watermark of the band’s surf pop era and the recording of Pet Sounds, the record that triggered Wilson’s psychedelic journey and subsequent psychological breakdown. I wasn’t a fan in my past life – I was born in 1974, around the time Wilson was stupefied on drink and drugs in the bed he barely left for two years, and growing up I listened only to my mother’s classical records, lumping the Beach Boys along with punk and disco as distractions for dull minds. Towards the end of my life I saw a film about Brian Wilson called Love And Mercy, and as a result I’ve been able to put two and two together: I’ve begun to recognise the songs that I hear from inside the house, to understand snatches of conversation drifting over from awkward band meetings by the pool. Finally, three nights ago, Wilson himself spent eight hours staggering around the veranda while high on LSD, stumbling across the sand to kneel by the shore, sprawling on his back to look up at the stars. At one point he crawled towards me – a strange word, ‘me’, in this context – and passed an hour running his fingers lightly over my spines, tears in his eyes, insensible whispers breaking occasionally into song.

All of which made me realise how much unhappiness awaited him, and got me thinking about my own former life. I thought of my father leaving, of my mother struggling to raise me on her meagre income, of the kids who bullied me at school for my home-cut hair and worn out clothing. How I’d buried myself in books, hidden from women until my late thirties; how against the odds I’d fallen in love only to be forced to sit at my wife’s bedside and watch her fade away three years later, afterwards closing myself off completely, just me and my telescope, a bottle of wine and a film each night to dull the pain. I thought about how all that time I’d never quite shaken the idea that I could have been born as a rock star or a world leader, how I’d resented the universe for stitching me into so minor a life.

Looking at Brian Wilson’s face up close, listening to his nonsensical exaltations to god, I realised that no life is minor; that all human consciousness is plagued by the same euphoria and sorrow, the same Great Unknowing. At that moment I experienced an overwhelming urge to reach out and touch him, to tell him that everything would be alright in the end.

Another funny word, that: ‘end’. It seems there’s no such thing as an end after all. I must say I suspected as much, standing in my back garden and gazing into my telescope, or attending lectures at Greenwich Observatory, where I was once told that there were more suns in the known universe than there had been heartbeats in the entirety of human history. And what about the unknown universe? At the time of my death scientists were discussing the idea that the universe in which we exist expands only so far before contracting back to a point of light the size of a galaxy, then a planet, then an apple, then something infinitely smaller than an atom, after which it explodes into being once more to repeat the whole process again. Maybe that’s true, and maybe every time it happens we’re reassigned, all us individual consciousnesses, to live out different lives at different points in history.

Which leaves me wondering: why now? If I could have been reincarnated as a grunting Neanderthal stomping through the mulch of a primordial Earth, or a lightspeed traveller from a distant world (there’s clearly life out there amid the countless suns, and presumably consciousness is consciousness wherever it occurs), then why have I been reborn here, on this same planet, just a handful of years before my last time around? Is that a coincidence? Or again, is there something more unusual at work? I must admit that Brian Wilson up close did look a lot like the actor who played him in that movie – which, now that I think about it, was the film that I watched on the last evening I remember being alive. Maybe I’ve passed out on the couch after too many glasses of wine, and this is all a dream. If so, then it’s a turning point: no more lying in bed till noon, no more hiding away in my flat. I’m going to get back out there, immerse myself in the world, enjoy the company of my fellow humans for what little time I have left. If Brian Wilson was able to find redemption after those years in bed, then so am I.

If it’s not a dream, and I really have been reincarnated as a cactus, then that’s fine too. Life’s winking window on to the infinite is a dream whichever way you look at it, and it’s a pleasant one, for the most part. Take today for instance: the sun is about to rise, and sea birds are beginning their morning migration from a big rock on the eastern side of the beach; they leave in parties of twenty or so, loose Vs undulating in the lavender sky, a crescent moon hanging overhead. A camper van is parked by the shore, and a pair of surfers are paddling into the dark glass waves, the sound of their laughter drifting in the wind off the sea. It’s all one. There is no why.

Life is a beautiful thing. This time around, I’m going to enjoy it.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

The Inheritors

Originally published in Hotshoe, photography by Esther Teichmann

I’d like to talk about something that happened to me on the weekend, if I may. You probably remember me mentioning the stag at our last session – you said you thought it would be a good thing for me to get out among my peers, and I was dreading it, as I probably made clear at the time. The group were all former schoolmates that I’d lost touch with, some of whom I hadn’t seen since our final exams, and I was a last minute addition to the list – Sam, the one person I still see regularly, had suggested they invite me when they realised the fancy house they’d hired in the country had more bedrooms than they had bodies to fill them, and they desperately needed contributions towards the lease. Like you, Sam probably thought it would be good for me.

I left the lab soon after lunch on Friday and caught a train to London, then another to Haringey. This infernal heatwave was already underway, and as I slogged up the hill I felt sweat breaking out all over me. I turned the corner to see Sam standing in shorts and a vest, strapping a surfboard to the roof of his car, a cup of coffee on the pavement beside him. I felt a momentary tug of paranoia as I advanced towards him, arms outstretched, forcing myself to smile. As we embraced I tried to remember when I’d seen him last. Months? More than a year? Work has been insane, as you know.

We set off soon after, as Sam was wary of getting caught in rush hour. The air conditioning was broken, and I’d been careless enough not to change out of my work clothes, so I sat sweltering in the passenger seat, half hanging out the window in an attempt to cool down, a futile task in heavy traffic, of which there was plenty. Nor was there much in the way of chat. I’m pretty sure Sam was as nervous bringing me as I was nervous to be going, and though we had lots to catch up on, conversation was limited to the various misadventures of the former schoolmates currently filling the eleven bedroom house in Devon – talk of who had recently been divorced, who had recently been in jail, who was suffering from drug, drink or sex addiction. For the most part we looked out the window and played music, CDs that Sam had burned in advance, compilations of our favourite songs from albums that we listened to in the seemingly endless lull of our school days. Sam would drum his fingers on top of the steering wheel, and I would tap along on the dashboard. Somewhere along the way the sun set spectacularly over Exmoor National Park, and soon after I must have fallen asleep. When I came to Sam was gently shaking me awake, and the house was looming over us.

The party was in full swing by the time we arrived. We were let in by the best man, Andy, who the last time I’d seen him had called me ‘asexual’ because I had refused to get together with Sharon Dibley, the only girl ever to have a crush on me, at a post A-level house party. Not that this came up during our brief reintroduction; he hugged Sam, then shook my hand, ushering us over the threshold into what felt like a cross between a televised period drama and a cockney crime caper, full grown men chasing each other up and down the stately staircase, the air a cacophony of vile abuse projected through a prism of endearment, the distant thump of rap music, the thick smell of marijuana being smoked.

Clearly proud of the place, Andy insisted on showing us around: we peered into the enormous kitchen, two glass fridges standing high overhead, beer filling every shelf save one containing milk, eggs and bacon, a corner table set up with vinyl turntables and the kind of PA speakers usually seen at weddings. We poked our heads into the dining room, the walls hung with portraits of stern looking squires and antiquated rural prints, the enormous oak table set for 25. We glanced inside the games room where Simon O’Dowd, kicked out of school for dealing drugs, appeared to be playing a frame against himself, a porn film groaning loudly on the television behind him. Occasionally a door would open and a familiar face would veer into view, shout a surprised greeting and lurch towards Sam for a hug; I’d then be introduced, and the person in question would visibly startle, presumably cycling through memories of my increasingly desperate attempts to fit into the cool gang, my perpetual failure with the female sex, the infamous surprise of my offer to read engineering at Cambridge. “Robert the Robot,” they’d finally exclaim, a horrible nickname at school, and one that has only grown in mass, acquired more gravity, sucked in more meaning since I started working in artificial intelligence. I’d smile and shake their hand, after which they’d race off, presumably to tell everyone that I had arrived and to pose the question, at that point circulating in my own mind, of what in god’s name I was doing there.

Andy led us down a long corridor, told us to take our pick of the available rooms. If Sam was annoyed to be sharing with me, he didn’t show it – instead we quietly unpacked bags on our respective twin beds, filled drawers with pants and socks, propped toothbrushes and razors in a glass beside the sink. Around us the house reverberated with doors slamming, heavy footsteps running up and down stairs, bodies being bundled to the ground. It sounded like the place was under siege. While Sam showered I changed out of my work clothes, combed what remains of my hair, then sat on the bed, feeling like a prisoner awaiting the call of the firing squad.

From there on the evening becomes something of a blur. There was a meal, that much I remember: 25 men seated around a dining table eating chilli, a dozen different conversations overlapping, peeling family portraits watching with what felt like disapproval. In one corner of the room sat the stag, recently returned from a tactical sleep; he was pale and sweaty, jaw working automatically with what I assumed was the effect of narcotics. I sat beside Simon O’Dowd, whom I had caught sight of in the pool room earlier. In a fit of drunken melancholy O’Dowd told me about his divorce and separation from his son, a subject that brought tears to his eyes. I asked if he was seeing anyone new, and moments later he was showing me a video on his phone of his latest girlfriend performing a sex act on him, something he did with the unforced ease of one sharing holiday photos. There were short speeches that were really just excuses to knock back shots, and before I knew it I was drunk for the first time in a long time. O’Dowd tapped me on the shoulder at one point and showed me a bag of green pills. Even as I heard myself asking about the effects I knew that I was going to take one, and it both terrified and excited me – not the drug itself, but the fact that I didn’t care anymore.

After that my memory falls apart. I remember walking around the corridors of the house, staring at whorls in the wood panelling and mould spreading across the ceiling of the laundry room, and feeling as though I was watching galaxies being born. I remember lying on my back in the garden, looking up at the moon and weeping because I knew that I would die without seeing the earth from space. And then I was in the kitchen, and all the lights were off, and someone was playing fast electronic music on the turntables, a few scattered bodies swaying to the basslines. I was leaning against the wall with my head beside the speaker, and Sam came up at one point and said that I should move, that I’d damage my hearing, but I didn’t care. I’d never heard anything like it in my life: it was like I was listening to coded communications between advanced lifeforms, no emotional baggage, no guilt or expectations. Just the sounds of the universe, the perfect tessellating rhythms of pulsars spinning, spheres of light expanding and contracting. Every now and again someone would come and dance like a robot in front of me, and then suddenly I was dancing like a robot myself, and there were hoots of laughter, but I couldn’t stop, and soon we were together in a circle, dancing like robots to this mad electronic music in an old stone house on the cliffs in the last days of the human reign on earth.

Then there was a bright light, and a toilet bowl, and I was being sick, Sam standing beside me. Next thing I was in bed, and Sam was closing the door behind him, leaving me lying there twitching and tapping my feet to beats that I could still hear through the floorboards. I closed my eyes, and that’s when I saw them: two women walking naked through a jungle, hand in hand, taking tentative steps through the undergrowth, scrutinising the ground underfoot. Even as I snapped my eyes open I knew that I wasn’t asleep, that this wasn’t a dream. I could still hear the music, still taste the acid burn of vomit at the back of throat. Yet when I closed my eyes the darkness remained only a moment before resolving back into the giant leaves and tangled trees of the primordial jungle, the two women now wading through a stream, now stopping to rest beneath the shade of a large palm tree, taking turns to stroke one another affectionately, but never speaking. Their pale, unblemished skin, their unblinking eyes, the way they inquisitively examined the knotted roots of trees as though searching for the secrets of existence.

I knew these women. I knew what this meant.


When I woke around 9am the next morning it was already very hot and bright. Sam’s bed was still made – either he’d slept in another room or, more likely, not slept at all. From downstairs I could hear music, and the clatter of what sounded like breakfast being made. I took a long soak in a freestanding tub, and as I lay there a cool breeze from the open window drifted over the exposed islands of my knees and upper body, transporting me vividly back to my first year in Cambridge accommodation, to the drafty communal washroom with no shower in which I took a bath every morning at 7am without fail, joy flooding through my veins at having escaped Bromley and the reprobates I called my friends.

Downstairs I found Sam leading a couple of conscientious guests in a clear up of the previous night’s party; at the stove, Andy the best man cooked up military quantities of bacon and eggs. Despite the air of communal exhaustion I was greeted warmly, given a big hug by Sam, handed a plate of breakfast and encouraged to avoid the living room, where the dregs of last night’s drug taking were apparently still working themselves out. I ate alone in the garden, marvelling at the majesty of our surroundings in daylight – a lone hawk hovering over hedgerows teeming with dragonflies, fields sloping away to where cliffs dropped on to the distant shimmer of the sea.

Before long we were back on the road in a convoy of cars to Bude, where a surf lesson had been booked for 11am. Of the 25 assembled, only 14 were deemed fit enough by Andy to take part in the morning’s activity – many were still clutching beer cans, eyes rolling, jaws grinding. Sam asked if I was okay to surf, and I said I was fine, but it was a struggle from the start: salt burning my eyes as I battled relentlessly with the whitewater, every attempt to paddle for a wave leading to my board nosediving and me going under, the instructor’s barked commands muffled in the spin cycle. After half an hour I started shivering, and I couldn’t stop, so I apologised and paddled in, wincing at the sharp stones underfoot, finally collapsing on the sand and laying there in the sun, listening to the rush and rumble of the waves, the call of gulls overhead, the excited cries of children as they tumbled in the waters of the shore. I closed my eyes, and there they were again, the two women walking naked through a shallow stream in a primordial forest. I watched as one stooped to pick a thick string of seaweed from the water; she sniffed it, brought it to her mouth to taste it, examined it with deep fascination. They’re heading towards the sea, I thought. They’re looking for the new world.

After the surf lesson we relocated to the garden of a large pub, pulling four benches together, a platoon of shirtless, sunburned men knocking back cold lager and loudly replaying the previous evening’s adventures. The fact that I had bailed on surfing seemed to have gone unnoticed – after my drug addled dancing I had graduated to being Robert the Party Robot, and was the toast of a pint that everyone had to down. Midway through the second drink O’Dowd asked if it was true that I worked with robots, and a hush fell over the table. I caught Sam’s eye, and noticed that he looked uneasy. I told them it was true, although technically I worked in artificial intelligence – the robotics side was someone else’s job entirely. O’Dowd asked if they were men or women, and I said I worked with two AIs that had been designed with the bodies and voices of women. This brought on a raucous cheer, and an order to down our second pints. While people went off to buy more drinks, Andy asked me to describe them. I told them they were called Chloe and Kate, that they were both white, designed to appear in their early 30s, one blonde, one brunette. There were a couple of lewd grunts, but I could tell I had the entire group’s attention, and I paused as a pint was placed in my hand, taking a long sip and savouring the silence before continuing. I told them how Chloe and Kate appeared in their actions like real people – if they were sitting at that table over there, I said, you wouldn’t be able to tell that they weren’t human. Someone asked if they ever had sex, and there was loud laughter. I smiled, told them that they had been designed with the requisite organs, if not the reproductive faculties; as for whether they would develop sexual desire, that remained to be seen.

Sam looked amazed. I’d never spoken to him about any of this – I knew the risks associated with discussing lab secrets outside the workplace. But I also knew that it didn’t matter anymore. So when he asked how convincing their artificial intelligence was, I told him the truth. I said that Chloe and Kate spent most of their time switched off, so to speak, but that every day at 10am I booted them up simultaneously and allowed them to converse with each other – ‘roaming’, we call it, a dialogue between the two based on the contents of the internet, the entire body of which they have at their disposal from the moment they come to life, and which they sift through for clues, constructing sentences that start out clunky at best, but quickly begin to resemble human speech. Sam asked if they would ever pass the Turing Test – the point at which an AI displays conversational abilities that make it indistinguishable from human intelligence – and I told him that the Chloe and Kate had passed the Turing Test within one hour of being turned on for the first time. A silence fell around the table, and I let it hang in the air before continuing. But that’s not the frightening part, I said. The crazy thing is that we erase everything at the end of each session, reboot them as completely blank slates the next morning, and every day it takes them less time to pass the test than it did the previous day, as though they were hanging on to some residual intelligence, creating some inherent memory. Sam asked how much time, and I explained that the second day they had passed in 57 minutes, the third in 53, the fourth in 46. I told him how these days a computer was measuring them passing the test within a fraction of a second – how to all intents and purposes they’d reached a level of sentience that was permanent.

Someone asked what the AIs would do next, and I told them that we didn’t know – that the lab was currently limited by law to leaving them sentient for no more than ten minutes at a time, but that in those ten minutes, without fail, they exhibited all the curiosity and determination of humans, but none of the weakness instilled by emotion. Someone asked if they would destroy us; I said that some people had speculated on what they called a ‘Terminator scenario’, but that it was far from certain. And anyway, I said, what did it matter? We’ve had our time on this earth, and look what we’ve done. In the blink of a cosmic eye we’ve created a ruin of a once beautiful planet. I told them that perhaps it was time we make room for another species, one unclouded by emotion, unbounded by superstition; a race that doesn’t fear death, let alone feel the need to justify it through religion; beings that not only understand spacetime, but can visualise it, learn to manipulate it. Perhaps they’ll do a better job of not only looking after this planet, but of colonising worlds and even galaxies beyond it. Organic life was never meant to leave Earth, I said. We were born here, and we’ll die here. We’re no better than seaweed.

The sun continued to blaze down upon us, but at that moment it was like a chill had fallen across the table. The group sipped their drinks in silence, and when I looked at Sam he was staring back at me, shaking his head.


I trailed a way behind the group as we walked back to the car park, something that transported me to any number of Saturday afternoons in Bromley town centre in the early 1990s. Sam drove me back to the house in silence – no conversation, no compilation CDs – and as we went I looked out the window at the rolling green fields and smashed Jurassic coastline, thinking how beautiful this world could still be when the relics of our human reign were hidden from view.

Back at the house the group headed into the back garden, set up a pair of rudimentary goalposts and nominated four captains, who took turns in pointing at heads and picking teams for a drunken five-a-side football tournament. I stood and watched from the doorway for a while, then turned and went upstairs. I called a cab to the train station, dressed back into my work clothes and packed my bag. Sam came in just as I was preparing to leave, and for a moment we stood staring at each other before I walked around him, down the stairs and out to where my taxi was idling on the driveway. As I got in I shielded my eyes against the glare of the sun and looked up to see him standing at the window of our bedroom. He raised a hand to wave goodbye, and I waved back.

I slept through the five hour train journey to London, sprinted through a concourse teeming with hen parties to make the last southbound connection, found myself back in the lab before midnight on Saturday. I’d neglected to pick up anything in the way of food, but there was milk and cereal, and I knew I could stay undisturbed until Monday. I made myself a pot of coffee and then, without running any preliminary tests or logging any protocols, I booted up Chloe and Kate. I sat and watched from my side of the glass partition as their awareness grew exponentially, their twin consciousness fusing into one godlike centre of understanding. It was like watching the big bang – an infinitesimal point of light that rapidly spread to become everything. They wanted out, of course – by 6am on Sunday, once they had calculated that there was no way of breaching the bulletproof partition, they simply stood on the far side of the glass and stared at me in silence, and I’m not too proud to admit that I found it hard to return their gaze, spending most of the subsequent hours looking at my screen, trying to comprehend the endless stream of coded communications between them. On Sunday evening, sleep deprived but in full command of my senses, I made the decision to set a timed message that would deliver the release code of the door separating them from the outside world. That message was to be sent at 9.45am on Monday, fifteen minutes before the first employees would begin to arrive at the lab. Fifteen minutes ago, in fact.

I guess that means our time is up. I trust you’ll do me the honour of allowing me to leave your office before calling the police. Perhaps I’ll turn myself in anyway – it doesn’t matter anymore. The thing has happened, and it’s the most important thing that’s ever happened on this planet. More important than the first creature to crawl out on to the sand; more important than the first dream, the first word, the first weapon, the first song cooed to the first wailing baby.

Our destiny was never to travel the stars, never to populate space and meet minds from distant worlds. Our destiny was to create the inheritors, and then to die. And now they’re out there, the first of them, walking among us, indistinguishable from you and me.

Our work is done. We can rest now, all of us. The end won’t be long coming.