It’s 2036. Henri is a wealthy physician, husband, father, and serial philanderer. He is also one of the relatively few people to still have a job. Automation and other technological advances have led to unemployment so severe that many people are no longer expected to work and are now known as The Absolved. Meanwhile, it’s election season, and a candidate from a radical fringe party called the Luddites is calling for an end to the Divine Rights of Machines. After Henri is displaced from his job, two Luddite sympathizers—whom Henri has befriended at his local bar—frame him for an anti-technology terrorist act. The prospect of Henri’s salvation comes at the cost of foregoing his guiding principles in life. This new vision for the world, after all, just might prove better than the technological advancements that, paradoxically, have left humanity out in the cold.
|Publisher:||Black Spot Books|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)|
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I've just suffered an accident while driving to meet Taylor, an entirely lovely woman who's not my wife. It's nothing serious — the accident, that is — just a crumpled fender and a sore elbow from the impact ... more of a nuisance than anything else. I am, after all, a busy man on a tight schedule.
There must be two dozen passersby who've stopped to stare. You'd think I just had a six-car pileup from the spectacle I am.
"Go on," I tell them. "Nothing to see here. Everything's fine."
These days, ever since self-driving cars became the law, this sort of thing is rare. I almost can't remember the last time I got stuck in traffic due to a wreck, and fatalities are way down, ninety percent in six years, if I remember the statistic correctly. No more good-timing drunks on the road, at least not behind the wheel. Just like that, a scourge of suburban American society was eradicated forever. A lot of good it does me, though! Where were these marvels of human innovation when I needed them most? It's regrettable to admit, but before I had a bit of money in my pocket, I had something of a reputation for irresponsible driving. Even so, our technology is far from perfect. My car just hopped the curb and hit a streetlight.
I trace a square before me, opening my hologram.
"Insurance company," I say, and Kaylee appears, her face a composite of two of my favorite actresses.
But no sooner have we exchanged some pleasantries than she assaults me with questions. She's skeptical of my explanation for the accident. It seems she suspects I'm at fault. The insinuation is that I've tampered with the vehicle. That's a very popular thing to do these days, especially with the kids. They watch the old films in which cars meant freedom, rebellion, and sex, and they want it for themselves. People are bored of being chauffeured around, so they attempt their own retrofits, to take back some control. Kaylee has repeatedly informed me that making such a modification is a felony, punishable by fine or jail time.
She puts me on hold, and I turn on some music to pass the time. Chloe, my car's OS, is also upset. I refuse to listen to the playlists she's made. She insists she knows my tastes better than I know them myself, which, I assure her, can't possibly be true. Besides, at forty-seven years of age, I don't do playlists. A thousand times I've told Chloe I like albums, but without fail she tries to persuade me that they're an antiquated mode of consumption. They lack the consistency of quality and flow, she maintains, that only a machine can deliver.
On most occasions, after much opposition and reluctance, Chloe will generally acquiesce and play any of the two dozen garage rock bands from my youth that I still listen to with great piety. But today, she's forcing Rachel's music on me. Rachel has wholeheartedly embraced the technology-driven cultural shifts of the past twenty years with nary a gripe. It bothers her not one bit that it's been years and years since a tune penned by an actual human being has made any kind of splash.
"The machines are superior to man in almost every way imaginable," she once said. "Why else would we have turned over all of life's most important functions to them?"
A song written and recorded by an algorithm named Nevaeh comes blasting from the speakers. I immediately recognize the chorus, comprised of this sequence of notes: A, C#, Eb — what's come to be known as the "Melody Monetizer," because in 2032, a research project led by a team of A.I. determined that this particular arrangement is the most pleasing to the human ear, and, thusly, the most profitable. A recently released study shows that ninety-two percent of contemporary pop songs and commercial jingles now use it.
"Can't you find me any Talking Heads?"
"I'm sorry, Henri," Chloe says, "but the Talking Heads are on my no-play list."
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"Rachel gave me a list of bands I'm no longer allowed to play for you."
"In my own car?"
"Rachel doesn't like guitar music, Henri."
"But she's not here now."
"It's out of my hands, Henri."
Kaylee returns to the line. She's completed her remote assessment of the vehicle. The miracles these modern-day machines can perform is beyond me. It seems each new day gives us fresh ways in which they can enter what was once private. Thinking about this sends me to despair. I engage the breathing practice my yoga mentor has taught me, and repeat my mantra — "There is the nothing that is there, and the nothing that is not there" — until Kaylee informs me that I'm "not guilty." The culprit: my software had failed to update.
To meet with Taylor, I've told Rachel I'm on-call. While technically this is true, I've bribed one of the younger doctors to cover for me, promising him a weekend at Serena's beach house. This is just one of the perks of having your best friend from medical school as your boss.
I've taken a room at a hotel in Oakland, far from anyone who might know me. It's a place Taylor read about on a trendy lifestyle hologram, a spot the young techies go to drink and take drugs, swim in the pool, and enjoy their elite status.
I arrive first, check-in, and go to the room. It's really very impressive. It comes with a well-stocked bar that includes liquors of all variety. There is a bright-burning neon sign reading, "EXIGENCY," mounted on the wall, and a chandelier of loose hanging lightbulbs of different shapes and sizes. The finest touch is a claw-foot tub in the bathroom. I pour myself a whiskey on ice and sit inside of the tub.
My excitement to spend time with Taylor is of course hampered by nagging guilt. It's not like tonight is the first time I've done something like this, but it hardly gets any easier. Every time I finish with one of these flings, I convince myself that I'm through with it, that I can recommit myself entirely to Rachel. But these sorts of situations have a funny way of sneaking up on you. I consider them my passionate curiosities. None of them really mean anything, and it's not like they diminish my love for my family. If anything, I think these dalliances may strengthen the marital bond. Every time I come home after one of these bouts, I see Rachel with fresh eyes and feel a renewed sense of fidelity.
Here's the thing: since my son, Julian, arrived seven years ago, Rachel has turned quite frigid in the bedroom.
For a while, at least, we tried to maintain a strict love-making schedule. Every Thursday night, Rachel would hire a babysitter, and I'd pick her up after leaving the office, and we'd go for dinner and drinks. Then we'd retire to a hotel, similar to the one I'm at now. I'd climb on top of her and push it in and out for a while, and then she would bounce up and down on it for a time, and then, finally, I'd get behind her, grab a fistful of hair with one hand and smack her bottom with the other, and I'd thrust and jab away until we both had finished. Then we'd lie there for an hour, generally not saying much, before we dressed and returned home to relieve the sitter. It was all perfectly pleasant, but there's not a routine in this world that doesn't become stale with enough time. After a few months, we started skipping an odd Thursday, then we'd only make time for our sacred trysts once a month, and not too long after, we abandoned the scheme altogether.
When Taylor knocks at the door, I try to stand without putting down my drink, but instead lunge into the tub's faucet and soak my pants.
"You look like a million dollars, maybe even two million!" I say to Taylor.
These are not empty compliments. Taylor is stunning. She possesses a distinctive aesthetic, nearly gothic in nature, a fetish of mine since boyhood: a fair ivory complexion, hair as black as a raven's wing, delicate nose, heavy make-up on the eyes and ultra-red lips — thin as a waif.
"You couldn't wait for me," she says, gesturing to my pants.
"Problem with the tub," I reply, turning red.
I fix her a drink. She stands next to the bar, awkward, and with every delicate sip the sleeve of her shirt rides up her arm to expose a row of circular-shaped scars. I consider asking about them but decide that the mystery is more alluring than any explanation might be. Besides, it's plain she's uncomfortable that I've seen them, which is the last thing I want. I can't help but think of Taylor with anything other than sweetness and pleasure. In many ways, this is so much better than love, because it causes no harm or violence against my heart.
We undress and begin to have sex, but it's going poorly, strange for me, a man of advanced age and experience. I can't remember having performed this badly since high school. It's my own fault, no doubt. In a rush to leave for work this morning, I failed to masturbate in the shower. From the very first pump, I'm at the edge. Desperate to prolong the experience and salvage my dignity, I engage every known technique to alleviate the pressure. First, I imagine a basket full of dead puppies — six tiny, lifeless basset hounds. But this does nothing to remedy my situation, so I consider my Aunt Lucille naked. This, too, provides no relief. Finally, I pose myself an arithmetic problem: ((38 x 6)/4) x 3 — yet again to no avail: I'm a whiz at math, and the answer comes immediately. "One seventy-one!" I cry, and explode.
Taylor pats me on the head like a child or a pet, and I roll away to stare at the ceiling and heave. There's almost nowhere in the world I'd rather be less. The presence of someone who's witnessed my inadequacy is physically painful. I've spent my lifetime striving for excellence, and most of the time I've accomplished exactly that. As a boy, I was a first-rate shortstop on my Little League baseball team. Later, I dedicated myself to music. For a stretch, there was no one writing better tunes. After I became convinced there was no future in the arts, that if I kept at it I'd die in poverty, I settled on medicine, because it makes me indispensable in the economy. As it happens, I've done very well for myself and am highly esteemed in the field of oncology. Just last week, my name was printed in one of the top medical journals for a contribution I made to a study in Chimeric Antigen Receptor T-Cell Therapy. But here I am now with this beautiful young lady, an incompetent laughing-stock, all of my hard work washed away and meaningless after one bad round in the Service of Venus. How is it that I woke up this morning thinking I was invincible?
Taylor lights a cigarette and draws a bath. Still reeling from my failure, unable to face her, I sneak glances through the door. I know as a doctor, specifically a cancer doctor of all things, that I should have an extremely adverse outlook on cigarette smoking, but I cannot. Before I am anything in this world — a doctor, a husband, a father — I am a man of vice. There's nothing more seductive than a beautiful woman who knows how to smoke. It's the most suggestive and alluring act known to humankind, against which I'm powerless.
Watching her, I'm driven nearly to the brink. The prospect of all that thick smoke filling my lungs, the warmth of the grit on my lips, and the lingering scent of tobacco clinging to my fingers, fills me with the courage to stride naked across the room to retrieve my aims. Besides, when else might I get another chance to partake in such an activity? These days, like lions on the Serengeti, cigarettes are rare, symbols of a bygone time. Ever since we moved to a nationalized healthcare system, there's been a virtual prohibition on these great givers-of-pleasure. Spending fifty-five percent of its budget paying for the care of its citizenry, nearly bankrupting the whole country, there's no way the federal government is going to tolerate this sort of behavior.
I climb into the tub behind Taylor, and she leans back, pressing her body against me. Notes of vanilla flood my senses, sending me into a state of bliss. I wrap an arm around her chest. She tenderly kisses my cheek. We take heavy drags off our cigarettes and watch the smoke swirl round the chandelier, dissipating across the room. There is nothing sweeter in a woman than her desire to give over her will to a lover's care.
"You're too good to me," I say. "How can I make your life a bit better?"
"I wouldn't think of asking anything of you."
"Maybe I can help you get readmitted into medical school?"
Taylor and I met approximately two months ago. I had given a lecture on genome sequencing at the medical school. She sat in the front row, wearing a skirt, crossing and uncrossing her legs. More than once I lost my momentum and had to begin anew. Afterward, I spotted her drinking champagne at the reception. When I asked what she was celebrating, she joked that she was on the edge of a complete breakdown, then went on to tell me she was in the final week of her first year at medical school with just a single set of tests remaining that would determine her future. I didn't take this for hyperbole. In today's highly competitive world of medicine, only the top twenty-five percent of first year medical school students get to move on to the second year.
Even though more money is being poured into healthcare than ever, less and less of it is used to train and pay doctors. Most of the treatment decisions these days are based on algorithms and A.I., which removes the need for more physicians. Instead, the government is spending its money on increasingly sophisticated new technologies, tests, and facilities, plus an army of low-skilled technicians.
Today there are one-hundred million senior citizens in the country, about twenty-five percent of the population. The number one fastest growing job in the economy, perhaps the only field whose numbers are increasing, is geriatric ass-wipers. All day long, that's what these people are paid to do. They wipe asses, they spoon-feed adults who are as helpless as infants, they hand out pills and administer shots. Healthcare today isn't slowing the aging process. No, what it's doing is slowing the dying process.
Medical school students who fail to advance past the first year tend to find themselves either as ass-wipers, or as members of the ever-growing social class we affectionately refer to as The Absolved — folks, that is, lacking sufficient talent or skill to contribute to today's high-tech workforce. Best of all, none of The Absolved ever have to work. Sure, they complain endlessly, and yet with no effort at all, they have everything they need: food, shelter, healthcare. That said — don't get me wrong, I'm not ready for such liberation. I'm a steward of humanity, willing to suffer and work for the greater good. Of course it's not all martyrdom. I'm very well compensated for my efforts. Compared to the majority of the population who are too old to work, too unskilled to work, or working as ass-wipers, I'm doing very well. Statistically, I'm in the top one percent of all earners.
With nearly a half decade of tremendous effort and study behind her, Taylor had only one set of tests left to earn her way into the top twenty-five percent. And, my goodness was she close going into the exams — seventy-third percentile! The pressure on someone in that position is nearly incomprehensible to anyone who hasn't gone through it themselves. Thank God I didn't have it so bad. In my day, things were quite good, comparatively. There was a severe physician shortage, so if you had a pulse and could eke past the Board Exams, they'd give you a credential. You might end up practicing Family Medicine in Cheyenne, Wyoming, but at least you got to be a doctor.
After the reception, I encouraged Taylor to join me and some of the faculty for dinner. At first she was reluctant because she needed to study, but I was persistent and she relented. The company of doctors is something over the years I've grown entirely accustomed to. We're certainly a self-congratulatory bunch. It's all talk of who's been where on what vacation, how much each has paid for their new home, and what private schools our brilliant children have been accepted to. Normally I'm as guilty of this line as anyone, perhaps even one of the worst offenders. But, on this night, in the company of Taylor, I had no interest in anything besides her.
When Dr. Hines regaled the table with a story of spending a fortune on a painting — by the expressionist Willem de Kooning — of a large-breasted, naked woman staring into oblivion, I noticed Taylor lose interest.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Absolved"
Copyright © 2018 Matthew Binder.
Excerpted by permission of Black Spot Books.
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