A Struggle for Primacy by Brian Cato

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A STRUGGLE FOR PRIMACY

Brian Cato

I can see him clearly through the window, John Walton, looking not a day over fifty. Revolting! Cloned flesh adhered to a metal skeleton, a computer brain inside. A stain upon all that is moral and pure. A man who thinks he is above death.

I try to picture what I need to do, but cringe at the thought of it. But my very disgust, my horror, my loathing, only reinforce my determination. My mission must be completed. Those who would live as gods must be brought down, the world must be made safe for the rest of us.

After his granddaughter has tucked her children in and gone up to bed with her husband, I wait another twenty minutes. He remains in the living room, the lights out, watching the flexidisplay.

I go through a last minute check: the battery pack is charged, my rifle loaded and ready. I inhale deeply and exhale, once, twice, three times. Then I’m off, out from behind the tree, moving across the yard. I heave the brick through the window and swing the sight of my rifle to eye level.

At the sound of shattering glass, he stands and turns. The first shot is clean, his right temple sheared off by the bullet specially designed to fragment into buckshot on impact. His hand jerks up to the side of his face, he screams in agony, but then his pain suppression algorithms kick in. His eyes flash in anger, and he scans the lawn, searching for me.

As he begins moving in my direction, I steady and aim again. I squeeze the trigger, but he’s moving too quickly, too unpredictably. Having located me, he’s run to the window, swung over the ledge, and launched himself onto the lawn.

You self-righteous little wretch, he sneers. You think bullets can hurt me? You think I would spend millions to build a fusion to load my mind into and they wouldn’t bother to make it bulletproof?

He calmly walks towards me, menacing, confident. I swallow hard to quell the feeling that I’m in over my head, and train the sight on his left temple. The second time I do not miss, his left hand flies up to the side of his face. Behind him, lights are flickering on inside the house. He pulls his hand away and holds it before his face, looking at the blood in the light streaming from the windows. The metal revealed under the flesh that’s been stripped away glints coldly. Revulsion rises in me once more. Despite all my preparation, every fiber of being being screams at me to get away, to run away from this monstrosity that’s been shot twice, but advances nevertheless.

What are you, an ecowarrior convinced people downloading themselves into fusions will ruin the Earth? A religious nut certain that I’m a monster in God’s eyes? A humanist who’s concluded that fusions will be the downfall of humanity? It won’t matter. As long as we control the corporations, it’s just a matter of time before you lunatics are eliminated.

I toss my rifle. I’m from Human, All Too Human, I force myself to say, knowing that I need to engage him, to keep him distracted. As I reach down to unclip the two electrodes, I mechanically begin reciting our organization’s literature, Those who seek to fuse themselves, those who seek immortality, are the very people who have spent a lifetime bending the rules, hoarding riches for themselves, trampling on the ability of others to make their lives better.

He’s less than five feet from me. I begin raising the electrodes, one in each hand. Then somehow, my hands sweaty and shaking, I lose my grip on the left one. I fumble for it, but he’s right on top of me. His right arm curls back, and then flashes forward, the back of his hand whipping across my chin and sending me reeling.

Survival of the fittest, he laughs. I deprived no one of anything. Every last penny I made, I earned.

Lying on the ground, an empty death staring me in the face, there’s a strange gathering sensation in the center of my chest. A wave of determination takes hold and rejuvenates my will, steadies my hands. I fumble for the missing electrode in the grass. By taking credit for the inventions of others, by lobbying the government to rewrite the tax code to your benefit, by paying everyone in your employ substandard wages, by acquiring and dissolving any competitor who was even the slightest threat. At last, I’ve got it. The will to power taken to the extreme . . . He lunges at me and clamps his hands around my throat.

Tell me you wouldn’t have done the same, he says. His hands are tight around my throat, but not so tight I can’t speak. Say it, say ‘I’d have done the same’

I manage to click the electrodes into place, one on each temple. Say it!

I would . . . I know I have mere seconds to flip the switch, never.

In the time of a thought his hands tighten, a ring of iron around my throat. Feeling as though my trachea will burst, I fumble for the switch around my belt. The edges of my consciousness start to blur.

Bzzzzt! My fingers blunder over the switch, the super-magnet kicks on. Every bit of data in his brain is instantly demagnetized, wiped forever. He twitches, his face still frozen in a hateful snarl, his hands locked in place.

I push him off of me, but his grip does not loosen, instead tearing at the flesh on my neck as he topples. Desperate, I try to pry his fingers loose, to no effect. Realizing I have but moments left, I focus on a single, sustaining thought: For some of us, there are causes worth dying for. That’s what it means to truly be human. I imagine I must be smiling as my awareness fades . . .

Food for Thought

1) Advances (whether genetic, pharmaceutical, or technological) appear to be on the way that will allow us to extend our lifespans further and further. Should we make use of them at all ? If so, how should we decide who can benefit from such advances? How should we balance the wants and desires of those who have been around for great lengths of time and accumulated much to themselves with the wants and desires of those just starting out?

2) What obligations, if any, do people in positions of power, whether financial or political, have to those they have power over? Do people who have great wealth have a greater obligation than others to do good with the resources they have? If so, are the wealthy in today’s society living up to those obligations (especially in comparison to the wealthy in our recent past)? If they are not, what can we do so that the next generation of wealthy have a greater sense of their obligations? Have them study philosophy?

3) This story is told from the point of view of the narrator. How did this affect your perceptions of the two characters and the issues around them? Do you feel that the media today does a good job of portraying fairly what life is like for members of all classes and subcultures?

4) The United State was founded on the back of a rebellion, many deaths, and much suffering. Can a rebellion ever be just? Under what circumstances? Are there circumstances under which a rebellion is not simply just, but under which people have a moral obligation to rebel? What, if anything, would have to change in America for the conditions to be right in the twenty-first century?

5) Following up on the concept of rebellion, many people who commit mass murders today (some of whom are called terrorists) believe they are doing so for a just cause. If you feel conditions call for a rebellion, what criteria can you use to determine if you are right or if you are insane? In a world in which many people are invested in preserving the status quo, or are preoccupied by distractions like television or social media, what is an appropriate response to injustice? Peaceful protests? Civil disobedience like tying yourself to a tree? Open rebellion? Quiet acceptance?

About the Author

Brian Cato pursued dual majors in philosophy and chemistry at Brown University. He worked on and off as a synthetic organic chemist for major pharmaceutical companies for ten years, taking breaks to spend a year teaching English in China and to write. His novels draw on his unique training in rational thinking and the scientific method as well as an abiding interest in the phenomenon of the mind, the genesis of identity, and the persistent irrationality of the human creature, himself included. His website can be found at www.briancato.com

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9 Comments

  1. Thank you for reading A Struggle for Primacy here at the Sci Phi Journal! If anything strikes you about the thought questions or the story, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment. I’d really like to hear people’s thoughts and get a conversation going.

  2. Immortality is something humans want for centuries, just wonder to what expend that we are willing to trade for that…

    • That’s a good question. In an age where if things can’t be assigned a numeric value, people have difficulty accepting that they have value, what kind of things do you think might be lost if some or all members of society gain immortality?

      • Immortality, like money, car and air condition that human created to make life more desirable have two sides, good and bad. The bad part, people might lose a sense of urgency, life became meaningless. If used for personal gain or evil will cause suffering for the society as whole. On the other hand if used properly, more knowledge and creativity might be saved.

        • Your comment reminds me of a phrase that comes up in the story, the will to power, the tendency of all things to gather power toward themselves. If people live forever, this capacity grows. It could become enormously destructive, or enormously beneficial. This leads me back to last part of question number two, how do we encourage the beneficial aspects of the will to power and stifle the sinister?

          Why did Bill Gates devote his whole life to philanthropy, but the owners of Walmart and Amazon continue to amass market share often at their employees’ expense?

  3. Immortality, like money, car and air condition that human created to make life more desirable have two sides, good and bad. The bad part, people might lose a sense of urgency, life became meaningless. If used for personal gain or evil will cause suffering for the society as whole. On the other hand if used properly, more knowledge and creativity might be saved.

  4. For at least as far back as the epic of Gilgamesh, the quest for immortality has been a central theme in the mythology of many cultures. Typically, it is taken a given that, as mortals, we cannot have immortality even though we want it (as Gilgamesh discovers only after a long but ostensibly fruitless quest). Therefore we have to find some meaning in a finite life. That may mean hope in some greater meaning or lasting life after death. Or achieving a surrogate immortality by achieving fame through great deeds or writing literature that will last beyond our death, or through children who remember us and carry on our family and genes. Or even just to appreciate the good things we have each moment that we have them.

    Often it is assumed that we would, of course, choose immortality if it were an option.
    In one scene of the Iliad, two heroes talk about why they are willing to risk death in battle. The reasons given are the usual statement of the heroic “code”: to win honor while they are alive and immortal fame. But there is a caveat, a conditional: “since we are not immortal gods…”. Certainly, it is worth trading some years from our lives (if we end up dying in battle) to make those lives more meaningful, but that is, at least in part, because it is a given that we are going to die eventually anyway no matter what we do. What if, however, we could live forever and even stay young, like the gods. Then it might be different, the heroes admit.

    In our own time, we have perhaps become more focused on resisting the idea of growing old. We often obsess about living as long as possible, and fighting signs of physical aging. But in some way the calculus is still the same—one way or the other, we are going to die, and like the traditional hero, we may argue that adding a few extra years to our lives ought not to be our highest priority. If technology does develop in the way suggested in this story (as it well might), however, then everything would change. For the first time in history, we would have a real philosopher’s stone. Why would we choose to settle for a surrogate immortality when we could have real immortality? What is the point of being willing to die for what you believe in if you don’t have to die at all? (As Woody Allen once said (more or less), I would much rather live on in my apartment room than in the hearts and minds of future generations)

    It is true that, for example, Odysseus is offered immortality by the goddess Calypso and refuses it, along with the allures of living with a goddess. He wants his human life, his own land, his own family, even his own struggles and eventual death, rather than an eternal life of ease and obscurity on a remote island. Similarly, although the innocence and earthly immortality of Eden is described as a Fall, nevertheless the redemption of Christ provides human life with a greater meaning than would have possible if this had not happened. But these are still belief systems which were fashioned in a context in which real immortality was conceived as impossible. Are they merely ways of convincing ourselves that, rather than just (quite reasonably) accepting a necessary limitation, a part of the human condition, it is something that we would actually choose if we had a choice (a much less obvious conclusion)? And even if we do believe this, would we have the courage to actually act on that belief, when there is a way out?

  5. Of course, there are many practical moral problems that a technologically-created immortality would probably pose. In this story, it is suggested that immortality has been achieved only through exploitation of others. And that, moreover, given that this immortality is only accessible to some, they might indeed become like gods, not only in being immortal but perhaps in their status or authority over those who do not have this power. Further, even if everyone could be immortal, we would have to deal with problems such as overpopulation. These problems may or may not have practical solutions (and, it seems highly unlikely that as a society we will have given enough serious thought to them before they are actually at hand).

    Setting these issues aside, however, would we want an immortality of this sort, if it did not bring these problems? The protagonist of the story calls Walton is a “monstrosity”—but why? The text suggests that it is partly because of the artificial components of his make-up—a metal skeleton, a computerized brain. But is this merely an enculturated prejudice inducing a visceral response, such as some people might feel disgust watching a homosexual couple kiss? He is a “stain upon all that is pure”, also, it seems, because he is above death. But does that sentiment reflect the bias of a value system developed because we *could* not previously be immortal? Would we would learn to feel differently over time, after it became possible? Or, would it, in any case, be bad *not* to be human, if we had a choice to be something “better”?

    The problem which this sort of immortality would pose, though, is how would we find a deeper meaning and value in life and how we would redefine what it even means to be human (or whatever it is that we would then be), when the certainty of death has traditionally played such a central role in shaping that definition. Our achievements, our choices, and even the people that we love and the things that we value, might well loose their significance in the sea of eternal time. Our lives would not have any obvious shape or progress to them. One could argue that the ultimate way to place a value on something is to be willing to die for it, as the protagonist of the story does, and indeed concludes that that is what it means to be human. That will be a harder conviction to maintain and act upon, if death is not inevitable at some later date. And yet the inability to be willing (or perhaps even able) to make such a sacrifice is a loss. Is it worth the price?

    • Thank you, Steve, for such a learned and entertaining post. Given it’s length, you should have submitted it as a work of writing independently!

      This story definitely received a lot of negative feedback in the submissions process. Some editors (not here) felt it was a little dry and mechanical, without a lot of substance to it. But I appreciate your close reading of the text, paying special attention to the attitudes of the narrator, and I think it’s easy to overlook some of the subtleties of the story.

      I, at once, think the narrator is crazy, and am envious of him. I agree that in the modern age, people have become quite focused on lifespan, and have lost the ability to believe in causes larger than themselves. It’s not uncommon to hear people refer to a single person’s death as a tragedy, when the world (and society even) cares not a whit about it, or to hear people say it’s unnatural for a child to die before his parents, when in fact, for most of the vastness of time, nothing could have been more natural. The idea that a generation of young men might die in a Revolutionary War, a Civil War, a World War, seems quite foreign.

      I feel that my own inability to find a cause large than myself is a huge personal loss, hence my jealousy.

      As for the madness, it’s my belief that the narrator occasionally descends into cliches and absolutisms (“world must be made safe for the rest of us”) because he’s not capable of fully independent thought. One could argue a kind of social identity theory, that he knows he can never achieve immortality, so he’s convinced himself that those who have must be evil incarnate. Without the strength of that belief, without it’s rigidity, he would not have the focus, the commitment, required to kill.

      I’ll leave it to others to speak about what they feel might be lost if some subset of people gain immortality. As you suggest, I don’t think our society is near ready to deal with the consequences, both personal, and interpersonal.

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