Sunday, April 9, 2017

DMI2017, Week 14: "Chicken Little" by Cory Doctorow

The Ten of Diamonds was the card for this week, and it introduced me to a most intriguing story by Cory Doctorow from the collection 21st Century Science Fiction.


We all know the story of Chicken Little and "the sky is falling." It's one of those folk tales whose origins have been lost in the mists of time. What is most interesting is how the basic premise of the story (don't overreact to insignificant events and fall into paranoia and hysteria) has been reworked and reimagined over the centuries.

This story is a fine example of a futuristic scenario in which mass eradication of fear and uncertainty (via pharmaceutical means) is finally a possibility -- but of course the fundamental question is, is this ethical? Is this even good for the human species, understanding that much of our evolution and development has been shaped by that very same fear and uncertainty?

The story's protagonist, Leon, has begun work at an ad agency called Ate. This agency, like many others, seeks to cater to ultra-wealthy individuals who have achieved a version of immortality. As their bodies fail, they move into vats, and are kept alive by the latest scientific developments and hundreds if not thousands of employees who become their "bodies." Still perfectly conscious, they continue to conduct business in this way and become even more wealthy and powerful. So if an ad agency such as Ate can sell even one thing to these individuals, its reputation (and income) is set for life.

This is what has happened to Ate. Long ago, the agency made a sale to one vat person, and the income from that sale has kept the agency going for a long time, and not just with bare-bones accommodations. Ate's offices are in a lavish, state-of-the-art complex and no need of its employees is ever denied. They don't actually have to ever make another sale, that's how good the first one was. The employees do whatever they want to, and are free to pursue any kind of lead that might lead to another sale. And if they could make one more sale, it would cement the agency's existence forever, So this has become the holy grail of the agency, and many employees have come and gone in what has turned out to be a fruitless pursuit. When a person such as one of the vat people needs literally nothing, what can you possibly sell them? So Leon's goal, as is the goal of everyone at Ate, is to figure out what that could be.

One day Leon meets with Ria, an envoy of one of the vat people. She represents Buhle, who went to his vat at 103, the youngest age ever for one of these individuals. It was apparently due to some kind of "accident," and as the story unfolds, this accident becomes critical to the climax of the story. Also, as it turns out, Leon is actually being courted by Buhle, who knows of his past history and also has an idea of what Leon can sell him. During his grad school days, Leon hit upon a new type of drug that allows humans to make cold, rational calculations about events. Taking this drug, no one would ever buy a lottery ticket, for example, because they would know instantly that their chances of actually winning were almost zero. Buhle's idea is that the drug would release humanity from its fear and uncertainty and usher in a new era of optimism and progress. But Leon's resistance to his own creation is that it would also take away many of the things that make human existence so ultimately rewarding in the first place.

I don't want to give any more of the story away, of course, but there are many, many layers to this excellent story which makes it well worth reading. It's definitely a five-star story.

Deal Me In 2017 is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

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