Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Year of Horror

I wrote the following science-fiction tale mostly on Halloween itself. I wrote it in response to Steven Pinker's extraordinarily optimistic (yet well-documented) "The Better Angels Of Our Nature". In this story I extrapolate some of the trends he proves to their logical conclusions.


     The Year of Horror

          Of course I should have kept my mouth shut; but you kids were getting depressed for no good reason. Or so it seemed to me. You were in trouble, you were despondent, you needed consolation, some perspective, and a kind word or two; so I spoke up. I’m glad you’ve sorted the whole mess out, and if what I said helped you come to your senses, then good!

          And I’m not surprised that you’ve over-reacted like this. I’d be worried about me too, if I were you. Sure, I’m a distant ancestor. Sure I was born 100,000 years ago. And sure, my words revealed my atavistic inner nature; and yeah, I can see how that might disturb your kind. But what I said was true, and I stand behind it.

So please, please, won’t you relax the conditions of my confinement a bit? Perhaps take me out for a walk from time to time? Be reasonable! And try to see things my way! I know you people are good at that.

          For me the whole trouble began when I went hiking out on the glacier. I remember leaving the ski lodge, and I remember seeing the crevasse. I don’t remember anything afterwards. That must have been when I fell in.

The next thing I know, I was lying in a weird-looking bed-machine, and fussed over by a crowd of weird-looking dwarves. Strangest of all, I could understand most of what the weird dwarves were saying, even though it was half mathematics and they were all talking at a mile a minute.

          The weird dwarves were you, dear distant descendants, and the bed-machine was a watchamacallit. I never could figure out that word, or half of your other words. The watchamacallit was what thawed and revived my ancient corpsicle.

          By the way, thank you. I am truly grateful. I’ve thanked you before and I’ll thank you again. Thank you, thank you, thank you, for bringing me back to life. I really appreciate it. You are the kindest, sweetest, most generous, giving and loving people I have ever had the good fortune to meet in all my life. I mean this from the bottom of my heart, and it’s true, even though you don’t believe it. Thank you!

And you’re also the smartest people I’ve ever met. Well… collectively you’re smartest. Individually… let’s face it. Taken one by one, and aside from your lightning math and your eidetic memory, you folks are kind of simple, aren’t you? But we’ve had this conversation before.

My point is, you’re brilliant in groups, the bigger the better; and this is because you play very, very well with others. You have this amazing social intelligence. You’re real sweethearts; truly adorable.

Well, it’s true! Even though you don’t believe it!

          About three years into my new life, I noticed that you kids had gotten into some kind of trouble. You were all scared, angry, frustrated, sad; one turbulent emotion after the other. I asked why.

          Somebody died today, you explained. Well, that eventually happens, even with a 700-year lifespan. But he was killed, you wailed; killed deliberately, by people, and on purpose! It was murder most foul! That’s terrible, I said; was it anyone you know? Well, no, it happened on the other side of the planet; and to no-one particularly important; just a person.

          One homicide in a population of 70 billion, and everyone on the planet freaks out? I kept my mouth shut.

          The next day was exactly the same. Another homicide, and more weeping and wailing. This time I figured out that these weren’t just random murders; these were political killings. Okay, “political” is the wrong word; your kind doesn’t have politics, at least not in any sense that I can make out; nor economics nor religion. But you do have something, which is sort of like politics, and sort of like economics, and sort of like religion, as near as I can figure.

          And in those sort-of terms, this Year of Horror you were suffering from is what I would call a war. Sort of. But one casualty a day, out of 70 billion, is an incredibly mild war, from my point of view. In fact, from my point of view it’s deep, deep peace!

          But not from your point of view, so again I kept my mouth shut.

          And so it went, for day after day. Each day, some one person got killed, and each time it was a huge shock. You’d keen, how could such things be? What’s this world coming to? Where did we all go wrong?

          At first I was perplexed by your collective histrionics; then irritated, then amused; then, finally, I was intrigued. I started to get the inner logic of your way of war, and frankly, dear descendants, I admire you more than ever for it.

          For one thing, you people are so much more efficient than mine ever was. I don’t mean, efficient at killing – my kind was very good at that -  I mean, efficient at getting the desired emotional effect of killing. You extract from a single slaying just as much mass hysteria, shame, guilt, horror, panic, disgust, terror, despair and insanity as my kind had to murder millions for!

          Part of it is your obsessive mass attention to the gruesome details of your victim’s hideous deaths. This goes along with the incredibly vicious ingenuity of your weapons. My people were content to shoot people or blow them up, and at worst torture them a bit first; but your weapons do all that and much, much more! I never knew that such crimes were even physically possible. Your victims die in such photogenic agony!

          I am duly impressed. And not just by the astounding malice expressed by your weapons, but also by what this says about you, dear  descendants. It says that, along with being sweet, generous, kind, caring, super-empathetic  and loveable, you also have a mean, dark, nasty, vicious, dirty rotten evil streak.

          And you know what? I approve. Your kind will need that vicious streak from time to time, in order to survive; and I want you to survive, because, dear descendants,  I love you and I am proud of you.

          But I am getting ahead of myself, and besides, this is just what I got in trouble for saying, right?

I should have kept my mouth shut; I should have just let you work it out for yourselves. But after six months of your emotional chaos, it got kind of old. You became way too self-pitying. You’d say; what terrible creatures we are! No, you’re not. You’d say; everything we’ve ever done is wrong! No, it’s not. You’d say; this is the worst disaster that ever was! Believe me, it isn’t.

          I put up with your mass hysterics right up until my keepers burnt my morning toast. That was the last straw; so I cornered one of you and had a candid conversation.

          Of course I knew that to talk to one of you is to talk to all of you. How do you do that trick, by the way? Do you creatures have radios in your heads or something? But I digress.

          There’s no need for me to repeat what I said then; you have the whole video file stored in someone’s head; and I said nothing that I haven’t said here. I said that your wars are absurdly mild; that your reactions are comically over-wrought,  your weapons are theatrically evil, and that this is all a credit to you as beings able and worthy to exist. I said that I’ve seen you at your very worst, and your very worst is not so bad. I said that I love you, and that I am proud to have you as my distant descendants.

          That was my way of being nice to you. It was moral encouragement. I wanted you to feel better about yourselves.

          And what do you know, the very next day the Year of Horror was called off! Instead of grinding on for six more months, you collectively decided that enough was enough!

          Maybe I had something to do with that? You’re welcome!

          But also, that same day, you came for me, and you sleep-darted me, and I woke up in this zoo! Yes, of course I know it’s a zoo. This cage is large, clean and comfortable, but you’re not letting me out, right?

          Look, I shortened your war for you; I must have saved hundreds of lives; and this is how you repay me?

          And to repeat, I’m not too surprised that you’ve over-reacted like this. I’d be worried about me too. But please, please, be reasonable! And try to see things my way!

I know you people are good at that.

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