Once, Nelson was a radical journalist, but now he works for Monad, the corporation that makes the Dr Easys, the androids which police London’s streets. They also make the Red Men, versions of real people imagined by a shadowy artificial intelligence… and they’re looking to expand the program.
Nelson creates Redtown, a digital version of a suburb, where the deepest secrets and desires of its citizens can be catalogued and studied. But the project’s goals are increasingly authoritarian and potentially catastrophic. As the boundaries between Redtown and the real world break down and revolution against the Red Men is imminent, Nelson is forced to choose between the corporation and his family.
File Under: Science Fiction [ Welcome to Redtown | Singularity Satire | You Are Data | Dr Easy ]
|Product dimensions:||4.10(w) x 6.80(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
Author hometown: London, UK
Read an Excerpt
I brushed my daughter’s blonde hair, taking pleasure in bringing order to its morning tangle. Iona stood at the window, gazing at the busy Hackney street. She blinked at the faces of the pedestrians, each discontent in his or her own way, stumbling and dawdling, stragglers in the human race. I concentrated on the long stroke of the brush. Each pass spun golden thread. We did not talk. I adjusted my position to brush the underside, drawing out a sheaf of hair upon my palm. While she slept, tiny zephyrs had whirled the golden thread into intertwined locks; carefully, I unpicked them.
I finished brushing her hair and then we put on our coats. Iona chose a doll to take to nursery, and that was the end of this peaceful moment together. The collar of the day slipped over my neck, the leash jerked taut, and the long drag began: work, meetings, teatime, Iona’s bedtime then work again until sleep took me. Drifting into unconsciousness, the leash would be unhooked, and I would wonder where the day had gone. Where I had gone. Close my eyes. Nothing there.
Iona said, “Daddy, what is that?”
A small group moved with authority and purpose through the pedestrians. It was the police, specifically an armed response unit, strapped up in black Kevlar armour and carrying sub-machine guns. We were used to the police; Iona wasn’t pointing at them. No, it was the tall figure in their midst that had caught her eye: the robot was at least seven-foot-tall and was covered in a skin of kid leather, with fully articulated legs and arms and sensitive catcher’s mitts for hands. It was not entirely steady on its flat feet. The police jogged to keep up with its loping stride. The robot passed by the window and glanced our way: a pair of mournful blue eyes set in a suede ball of a head.
Again, Iona asked me what it was.
“That’s a Dr Easy,” I replied. “It’s a robot. You know what a robot is.” I helped her into a duffle coat.
“Why is it a doctor?”
“It helps people. Sometimes people get mad. It makes them better.”
“Why do people get mad?”
“They just do.”
It was time for us to go. I opened the front door. Iona clamped her hands over her ears. A police helicopter hung in the air, its rotor blades drowning out the clamour of the main road. Policewomen set about sealing off the street, unwinding strips of yellow tape and evacuating the shops: customers halfway through their manicures were led indignant from the nails and hair place and at the internet shack armed police threatened the Somalians who were waiting for their permits to finish downloading. A pair of builders in plaster-spattered boiler suits sauntered from Yum-Yum, refusing to be rushed. As each establishment emptied, the police put down metal crowd barriers to close it off. We milled outside the off-licence. What was going on? Did anyone know?
An armed man was holed up in a house, said the constables. Shots had been fired. Snipers, as graceful as burglars, skipped over the rooftops and took up positions behind chimney stacks. I looked back toward my house but could no longer see it. A blue tarpaulin had been set up across the street. The armed unit huddled behind a barricade with Dr Easy sat cross-legged among them, listening politely as the captain explained his intentions.
Dr Easy made me anxious. It was the eyes. Sometimes feminine, sometimes masculine, just like its voice, which could be maternal or paternal depending upon the need of the patient. When I was unwell and suffering from anxiety, I was offered sessions with Monad’s in-house Dr Easy. It spoke with a man’s voice and let me hit it in the face.
I wriggled my hand free of Iona’s grasp and checked my pulse. It was elevated. Her question came back to me: Daddy, why do people get mad? Well, my darling, drugs don’t help. And life can kick rationality out of you. You can be kneecapped right from the very beginning. Even little girls and boys your age are getting mad through bad love. When you are older, life falls short of your expectations, your dreams are picked up by fate, considered, and then dashed upon the rocks, and then you get mad. You just do. Your only salvation is to live for the dreams of others; the dreams of a child like you, my darling girl, my puppy pie, or the dreams of an employer, like Monad.
The robot sat patiently through a briefing by the tactical arms unit, which was quite unnecessary, as it would already have extracted all the information it required from their body language. Dr Easy listened to the police captain give orders because it knew how much pleasure it gave him.
The body of the robot was designed by a subtle, calculating intelligence, with a yielding cover of soft natural materials to comfort us and a large but lightweight frame to acknowledge that it was inhuman. The robot was both parent and stranger: you wanted to lay your head against its chest, you wanted to beat it to death. When I hit my robot counsellor, its blue eyes held a fathomless love for humanity.
Slowly, Dr Easy stood up. The crowd fell silent. The robot held up its enormous right palm, a gesture of peace to the gunman. Its left hand was arranged with similar precision – the palm of an open hand facing forward, the five fingers slightly bent. With this gesture of charity and compassion, Dr Easy took stately steps across the road toward the gunman’s house.
The police retreated to where Monad’s contractors had set up a monitoring station. Gelatinous screens billowed out like spinnaker sails to catch the data pouring in: infrared, millimetre-wave and acoustic impressions from the police helicopter were matched to the sensory input of Dr Easy, creating a live three-dimensional model of the siege house. The gunman was on the second floor, in the corner of a bedsit. I hoisted Iona up into my arms and walked over to the contractors, flashing my Monad ID. Could I be of help? In an advisory capacity? In the spirit of public and private sector collaboration? The Monad technicians knew me from the company five-a-side league. I was allowed to hover in the background.
In the time it took me to remove a small box of organic raisins from my pocket and give them to Iona, Monad assembled a working profile of the gunman, mining his scattered data and reassembling it in the shape of a man. His name was Michael Sawyer and he had no prior criminal convictions. He had a number of traffic violations and an onerous mortgage, a low six-figure income with a high five-figure alimony. His medical records contained prescriptions for beta-blockers and anti-depressants that had not recently been renewed. He had moved out of the family home and into rented accommodation, but not to here; this siege house was not his last known residence. The previous year he had racked up tens of thousands of air miles, doing three continents most weeks. This year, none. I looked at his employment record and drew my own conclusions. Here was an exhausted and confused foot soldier of globalization, bounced up the empire of a media magnate before falling out of favour. He managed to get a position at a telecommunications and military electronics firm which in turn had been taken over by a larger company. Personnel took out his expense claims for the last year and exposed them to micro-analysis, searching for a pretext to fire him and avoid paying redundancy. They had found what they were looking for.
This was the gunman’s background. Now the police captain added the foreground. Officers on patrol had identified Michael Sawyer’s sports car as wanted in connection with a hit-and-run in Soho. When they inquired at the house, they heard three shots. The firearms unit arrived and a further two shots were let off from an upstairs window. Officers returned fire but surveillance showed the suspect still moving around inside the house.
“We tried to negotiate. They always negotiate. Not this one. He hasn’t said a word. We don’t know what he wants,” said the police captain.
“Dr Easy will find out,” I said.
I wanted to see a Dr Easy in action. My work for Monad was conceptual, concerned with planning and development. I rarely saw any project through to completion, and so never acted in any decisive way upon the world. My will and ambition had been diluted by years of being the ideas man, a thinker and not a doer, a position of unchanging powerlessness in any company. Monad dreams. I do not. Not for myself, anyway.
The siege house was a Victorian terrace carved up into bedsits. Six doorbells clustered beside the shattered front door. Dr Easy went inside. On the screens, we watched the robot’s slow progress up the staircase. Its inner monologue came through the monitors. It could already smell Michael Sawyer, his fear hormones, the stink of a wounded and hunted animal. The robot crept up a tilted cobwebbed staircase until it came to an unlocked door. The gentlest pressure from the robot’s paw swung the door back on its hinges.
The room was dingy. A dirty single bed. A Baby Belling oven on a peeling melamine surface. A microwave. A stereo. A half-unpacked suitcase. Michael Sawyer was crouched in the corner. His striped shirt was untucked and slick with blood. At the sight of the robot, he gurgled and gesticulated with the shotgun.
“He has a bullet wound to the mouth,” observed Dr Easy. “And there is an overpowering smell of petrol in here.”
“Ask him what he wants,” ordered the police captain.
“He can’t speak,” said the robot. “The sniper shot him in the tongue.”
“Can he write it down?”
“It doesn’t matter. I know what he wants.”
Dr Easy moved forward to comfort the injured man. Michael Sawyer made a gesture that was like Atlas trying to shake some sense into the world.
The robot translated for us. “Too late. He is going to kill himself now.”
The flat was saturated with fuel. Dr Easy made no attempt to intervene. The robot was already backing out of the room when Michael Sawyer lit a rag. Fire filled the screens and – back on the street – blew out the windows of the house. Iona was scared and I held her tight to me.
A great fire waits under London. Michael Sawyer had merely slid back the grate.
Lift up a manhole cover, listen to it roar.
Dr Easy walked out of the billowing smoke, and then, with flames running all the way down its back, the robot burned on the street until someone came forward to extinguish it.