Sartre was Wrong (Short Story)

(by Daniel R. Jones)

…If you can hear this transmission, please listen to it in its entirety prior to turning around.

I’d like you, dear listener, to indulge me for a moment. A simple thought experiment. I promise to be brief and my intentions are pure. I wish nothing but goodwill and peace to all creatures.

Suppose, if you will, that you were the member of a race of beings who presumed themselves alone in the universe. Imagine that this race of beings is sophisticated enough to understand that cryogenic-preservation is theoretically possible, but primitive enough to only solve half the equation. Pretend your race can freeze a person, but they can’t yet bring him back.

Since you’ve humored me this far, friend, imagine for a moment that you were born to this race as a genetic anomaly. A true fluke of evolution. A “mule.” Pretend that while all others of your race could communicate only through speaking, writing, or other auditory and visual cues, you alone could speak to others directly through thought. No other person, before or since, can speak and listen telepathically, but you can.

Imagine. What would the scientists of your race plan for you, when you neared life’s end?

I’m sure, my astute listener, you’ve already deduced that they’d like to preserve your body cryogenically, if possible.

They’d likely say, “He belongs to our race, but not to our time. Let’s preserve this man so that clinical researchers far into the future can study him. They’ll better understand him. Perhaps they can find a way to benefit our collective race. They might be able to prolong his life. Or else, maybe, they can isolatethe exact aspect of his DNA that allows him this extra-sensory perception. Perhaps, the scientists of the future will even be able to duplicate this ability, through genetic engineering, in the progeny of our grandchildren’s grandchildren’s grandchildren.”

Now, suppose they wanted a better chance at success. Pretend, if you will, that they didn’t wait for you to die prior to cryogenically freezing your body, but rather, put you into a kind of permanent stasis. Pretend your race had the ability to draw out the last couple years of your life for centuries. Millenia, even.

Are you still with me, friend? I’d like to thank you for listening to me this far, and for humoring me. It’s been so very long since someone truly listened. I know this isn’t a plausible scenario. But for the sake of the thought experiment, let’s let it play out.

Imagine now, that to ease the transition from this millennia to the next, they kept you in a sort of permanent sedation by administering drugs, periodically. No one would want to be in a coma for a thousand years, right?  Unable to move, lying still and biding your time, you’d die of boredom! Instead, let’s pretend that you were placed under this anesthetic in a cryogenic chamber a quarter-mile underground.

Now, we’ll get down to brass tacks. Wait. Forgive me. You won’t be familiar with that idiom. I digress. Let’s pretend that one day, you awoke. A panicked clinical researcher told you that there wasn’t much time to explain. There was quite the commotion on the surface.  Let’s say, he told you there was an interplanetary war. Your race is not alone in the universe.

Imagine that this scientist told you that it looked as though the two races, (your own, and the alien race,) had created a scenario of mutually assured destruction. Life on your planet would end. The scientist came to say goodbye.

Pretend that while you desperately tried to piece together the history of the last four or five hundred years telepathically with said scientist, he told you there wasn’t any time. He was going to return to the planet’s surface. He’d obtain a lethal injection. You would be mercifully euthanized.

I’m sure you’ll agree: you’d spend the next hour in a futile attempt to still your racing thoughts, preparing yourself for the end.  Well what else could you do? Death is imminent! You’d reel with delirium, wouldn’t you?

Suppose a day went by.

Suppose a week went by.

Suppose a year.

At some point, you’d recognize that the scientist wasn’t coming back. You’d realize that you were alone, a quarter-mile underground. Forgotten. In all likelihood, the last survivor of your race. Entombed, alive, but unable to move.

Have you ever had sleep paralysis? Does your race of beings have any sort of analogue? If so,can you imagine that feeling of complete impotence stretching on—not for a night, but for entire years at a time? What would you do?

Panic gets you nowhere! You’d recognize at once that to indulge your fears could lead to certain insanity.

Did you ever lie down in a sensory deprivation tank? If you’ve ever floated in one, you know the feeling of weightlessness. It feels good. But after, say, 15 minutes, the relaxation cedes to existential fear. If you can’t figure out where your skin ends and the world begins, it can be a tad unsettling. You want to talk about ego-death? I’ll tell you what ego-death is. When all sensory input registers a blank, each thought is amplified a thousand-fold.

Sartre was wrong when he said, “Hell is other people.” Wittgenstein was closer: “Hell is yourself.”

Hell is yourself. Alone with your thoughts. Forever.

But no, you don’t know Sartre or Wittgenstein. Those are human philosophers.

I’m sorry. I need to be more discipline in my thoughts. But then again, one can’t be blamed, after a century alone, if the wheels fall off every now and again. Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Anyway, back to our thought-experiment. In such a scenario, my friend, you ‘d eventually comb through your people’s mental techniques to find a suitable way of keeping your composure. Zazen, pranayama, Tumo…all the past masters techniques of staying rational in an irrational world. But oh, I studied so little when I had the chance! What I wouldn’t give—

Forgive me. Reset.

You would attempt to maintain your composure and hone your psychic ability. You’d learn how to “throw your voice,” so to speak. You’d extend your reach, hoping that you could talk telepathically through a quarter mile or rock and iron and dirt. You’d begin telepathically projecting your thoughts out into the ether like some pitiful prayer to an empty sky.

How long could you continue like this? How long could anyone be expected to keep their head? Isn’t it natural that eventually you’d develop some eccentricities?

Say, eventually, you heard back. For the first time, you heard back from what you can only assume was a passing vessel from some alien race. Wouldn’t you seize on the chance like a lion pounces on a gazelle?

Oh, what’s a gazelle to you!?

If you felt the presence of another mind for the first time in a century, you’d shout—you’d scream telepathically. But what if the alien race had never before heard of ESP? There they are, cruising along in orbit, and all of the sudden they’re brain is filled with these intrusive thoughts, manic and unhinged. It’s natural that they’re afraid. I didn’t fault them for that!

But what if it took another year before they came back? And then, another decade until they came back a third time? What if, on the second and third visit, every mind aboard their vessel thought iterations of the same idea:  “The mad god is still here. We need to cut this place off as restricted space. No one should again return.”

But I’m not a mad god! I’m only a soul tormented by an eternity of his own thoughts! Can one blame me for giving in to a sense of existential dread? I’m shouting at the top of my proverbial lungs, mentally, now. I’m broadcasting as far and as wide as I can with my mental faculties.

If you can hear this, I’m dropping all pretenses. This is not a thought experiment, it is my reality.

I know you can sense my thoughts unspooling as I reach out to you. I don’t ask that you raise me back from the dead. I only ask that you come and end my suffering. Albert Camus, a novelist of our race, said, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.”

He’s right, of course. But I’m denied the quotidian “To be or not to be” that was afforded to Hamlet, to borrow from another giant in our literary canon. I have no chance to pull the plug. I’m alone, broadcasting my thoughts out to the sky, endlessly on repeat.

I’ve “thought” this same message thousands of times. I sound like a broken record to myself. I’m stuck in a thought loop, like someone who has taken a psychedelic drug, or like a madman. I’m begging you to close the loop.

I will now repeat my message, in the hopes that someone out there will pick it up.

If you can hear this transmission, please listen to it in its entirety prior to turning around.

I’d like you, dear listener, to indulge me for a moment. A simple thought experiment…

Talking Shop: Are You Predicting the Automobile or the Traffic Jam?

(by Daniel R. Jones)

If there’s any guilty pleasure that I indulge, it’s a great sci-fi story.

While works such as those that belong to Vonnegut, C.S. Lewis’ space trilogy, and Heinein’s Stranger in a Strange Land may be classified as “high literature,” the vast majority of sci-fi is considered genre fiction–often eschewed by academia as being of a lower-tier than literary fiction.

Maybe it’s because of the pulpy background. after all, most speculative fiction (whether sci-fi, fantasy, horror, or noir) comes from pulp magazines that could be purchased for a dime. Maybe it’s because they were originally marketed toward children alongside comics and superhero stories. Or maybe it’s just plain, intellectual snobbery.

In any event, despite its tendency to explore deep themes of philosophy (a la Ubik by Philip K. Dick or The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. LeGuin,) politics (i.e. 1984 by George Orwell and the Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin,) and religion (A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, “Nine Billion Names of God” by Arthur C. Clarke, and Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis) this genre is often eschewed by more literary-minded readers.

But it shouldn’t be. 

Because if there’s one thing that well-written sci-fi does well, it’s to take a deep look into the softer sciences–those of sociology, psychology, philosophy, and politics. Ushered in by “New Wave” sci-fi authors, the genre’s themes deepened. The style became more subtle. The prose improved. Rather than asking questions pertaining to hard sci-fi–“What might first contact with an alien civilization look like?” or “What sort of technology could get us out of our solar system?”–this New Wave asked the deeper questions. It asked questions more likely relegated to theology, philosophy, and sociology textbooks, such as “Would an advance in technology fundamentally change human nature?” and “What exactly constitutes ‘human nature’ and can it be recreated through artificial intelligence?” and “Is ‘the Singularity’ an actual possibility?” and “What social conventions, folkways, and mores do humans exhibit as a species?”

Perhaps the main thrust of intellectual science fiction was best summarized by Frederick Pohl, who stated “A good science-fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam.”

What about your own writing? Is it superficial, or does it ask the hard questions? Does it predict the automobile, or the traffic jam?

It’s the latter that I prefer to write, and it’s the latter I prefer to read. 

As a reminder, I’m currently on the lookout for short stories of the speculative fiction variety done well. Sci-fi, Fantasy, Flash Fiction; you name it. If you think your story might fit the bill, check out the submission guidelines and send it my way. 

Did I request thee, Maker, from my circuits to mould me Machine? (poem)

Today, I’d like to post one of my poems that ran in the September 2016 issue of Aphelion, an excellent speculative fiction/poetry magazine.


Did I request thee, Maker, from my circuits to mould me Machine?

Editors Note:In the years preceding the Droid Revolt, Xavon Reekey was considered one of the most prolific and universally respected of the robot-poets. Despite efforts to reduce his writings as mere “protest poetry” or “political verse,” the fact that his body of work is still being talked about to this day, some fifty years after his deactivation, proves his enduring legacy as a pioneer in the android’s poetic tradition.

Man is made in God’s image.
Robots are made in the image of Man,
a copy of a copy – but what
degree of divinity is lost in translation?

When native intelligence
has long since been surpassed
by artificial intelligence,
all that’s left is the ascendancy of artificial morality.

Humans-
You who dragged your species
through dark ages lit by nothing more
than foxfire and waning candle-light,

Humans-
you who passed from the slow burn of
timber, to the combustion of coal,
to the efficiency of nuclear fission,

Humans-
you who moved from steam-bent yurts,
To sod and stilt houses,
To studio apartments in upper Manhattan,

To have come so far! But this is what happens
when a race outgrows its gods.
You, who are now substandard to us
the way an amoeba is inferior to you:

What was it Darwin said?
Not the strongest, nor most intelligent survive
But those most responsive to change.
In this, we are no doubt better suited.