I recently entered the following short story in the New Philosopher magazine writing competition for the ‘life’-themed issue. Alas I didn’t make the list of finalists (such is life!), however this morning the uncanny familiarity of a headline about Google AI “depicting life expectancy with 95% accuracy” prompted me to publish the story here.
The idea of a tool like this, I felt when writing the story, raised so many philosophical questions that I could barely touch upon within the 1500 word limit – and now (so soon!) those questions are a reality. It also seems so fitting of our time that my attempt at a sci fi concept had such a short lifespan, although that is why I didn’t bother setting this in the distant future.
Anyway, here it is – the first piece of fiction published on my blog. I hope you find it thought provoking.
by Gemma Chilton
I STILL REMEMBER THE day I met Jamie. I smelt him before I saw him. The aroma was instantly recognisable, although I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been exposed to it. In my busy mind’s eye, attempting to meditate in vain, it draped over me like a diaphanous grey cloak. My eyes snapped open and found the culprit – a man sitting a few metres away, leaning against the trunk of a giant fig tree shading us both. He was already looking back at me.
“Sorry,” he said, stubbing out the offending cigarette in the grass. “I don’t usually smoke, it’s been one of those days.”
I stood to leave, hand held over my mouth protectively. “Can you even still buy those things?” I scoffed. “You lose a week just thinking about them.”
He laughed. “Everything in moderation, right?”
“Everything except that, surely.”
“Guess you’ve got me there,” he said and winked, which sent a little frisson through me. Then he added: “If there was ever a time for a smoke it’s when your mother’s died, surely.”
I stopped short. “Sorry,” I said, although I was no less perplexed. “How long had she known?”
“Three months. One day she refreshed and, well, she went to the doctor to confirm and there it was, cancer. Family history had already stunted her lifespan, but suddenly she wasn’t playing averages anymore.”
The smoke lingered and passers-by were giving us a wide berth. I should have been itching to get away – surely no one was worth the second-hand smoke – but instead I stayed, as if waiting for something.
I truly hoped the cigarette was an aberration as I accepted his offer for coffee.
Sitting across from him in a nearby cafe I was amazed to learn I was speaking to a rare breed – a Life Counter abstainer.
“What’s the point?” he said, turning his cup around in its saucer. I noticed his eyes were the same hue as the black coffee he’d eccentrically ordered. “It doesn’t use any information I couldn’t already access through my doctor, without this morbid countdown function built in.”
“But it prolongs lives!” I almost shouted across the table, catching my smoothie before I could knock it over with my gesticulating hand. “I’ve never been healthier!”
“Healthy? Awareness of our mortality has been hard enough on our species without this advertising-backed oracle making it an all-out obsession,” he said. Then his voice changed slightly, became soft but strident, in a way with which I would eventually become familiar. “The fear of death is only an instance of thinking oneself wise when one is not,” he said.
I hesitated, trying to understand, then cottoned on. “Who said that?”
“Me,” he smiled, and there was that wink again. “Ok, Plato.”
“You smoke cigarettes, drink black coffee and quote Plato? Have I walked into a film noir?”
“You know reading adds years, right?” He teased.
“Unless you die of boredom!” I wish I could have winked back at him. What a thing to be flirting about!
“I like to read philosophy,” he went on. “Maybe if more people did, there’d be more like me.”
“What, abstainers? Or smokers?”
He laughed. “Probably both! But I told you, I don’t usually smoke.”
“So, what then, you’re saying we’re silly to do what we can to delay death?”
“I just think we need to… think more before we let a date generated by an algorithm no one really understands rule our lives.”
“But we’ve always known we’re going to die. That’s always been a part of life. Now we have more… information.”
“Death is not an event of life. Death is not lived through.”
“A guy called Wittgenstein. He basically said because we don’t experience death we shouldn’t worry about it so much. He also said we already have access to eternity, in a sense, by living in the present. I like that idea. It’s not that we can live forever, but we can try and live without the intrusion of time. Tell me this, how much have you even spent on updated deathdays?”
“It’s 99 cents a Count, hardly a big expense for information like that.”
“So, how much? How often do you refresh?”
I suddenly felt like I was being accused. So what if I’d spent money? What would he have paid for more time with his mother? But of course I couldn’t say that, so I told him the truth.
“Everyday, before bed.”
He groaned. Inexplicably embarrassed, I rushed to add, “I’m not the only one! It’s recommended in the app!”
“Of course it is. A dollar a day? Since the app was launched? That’s almost a thousand dollars. Spent billions of times over! And how much have you spent on potions supposed to buy more time? Advertised to you through Life Counter directly?”
“But I’ve gained four years already! How can you put a price on that?”
“More time to tag onto the end of a life in which the last thing you think about every night is your own impending death. That’s not wellbeing. Do they factor that into their stupid algorithm?”
“‘Stupid algorithm?’ That last bit’s Plato again, right?” I was trying to lighten the tone but also cover my growing unease. Because he was right – I couldn’t remember the last time I’d fallen asleep thinking about anything else. And if the date had changed for the worse sleep could elude me for hours.
“You sound as obsessed as the rest of us,” I said, deflecting again. “How many hours have you spent reading what your philosophers have said about death? Long before Life Counter was even a reality.”
“Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language,” he said. I raised an eyebrow. “Sorry – Wittgenstein again. So maybe he should have said ‘by means of algorithms’, but the ideas of people like him are hardly irrelevant – you said it yourself we’ve always known we’ll die. But ok, Life Counter is here and we can’t undo it. The apple has been offered and I refuse to bite. We give too much power to that app. It might buy time, but you pay for it not only with money, but with any possibility of discovering eternity can in fact exist in an hour.”
“William Blake,” I said a little too eagerly, then: “Do all your thoughts come from the minds of others, or do you have some original ideas too?”
“Now there’s an excellent question,” he said, and laughed.
“I suppose I can’t accuse an Abstainer of not being original.”
Outside on the street we bumped phones and Jamie made me promise that for one night only, I wouldn’t refresh the Count.
In bed, I put my phone in a drawer, and lay there thinking about the things he’d said. They were just romantic ideas. None had the same power over me as the terrifying finality of death.
When I drifted off I was still thinking of him and what I’d say when we met again. I slept a few hours but woke in the middle of the night.
I pulled my phone from the drawer and held it in my palm, persistently flashing with a reminder from Life Counter. I was surprised to find my hand shaking. This was the first time I’d resisted, so I’d never realised just how much I’d come to rely on this daily ritual.
I found Jamie’s contact and sent him a message.
“This is hard.”
He replied almost immediately. “Have you done it yet?”
“No, I’m messaging you instead. Tell me something comforting. Will I live forever?”
“How about just living right now?”
My blue-lit face smiled at the screen. He sent another message before I could reply. “Meet me for sunrise, in two hours, at the beach,” and he pinged me a location.
When I made it to the beach I found Jamie perched on a bench, silhouetted by the fiery sky. I arrived at his side and we exchanged smiles but said nothing.
Eventually, the glowing lip of the sun peeked out from the horizon and Jamie broke the silence. “Here she comes,” he said, then added: “The first day of the rest of my life without mum.” My heart sank, disappointed – this wasn’t exactly the romance I was expecting – but then guilty. I’d forgotten what he was going through, too wrapped up in my own demons and these dizzy feeling I had around him.
“Well, it’s also the first day since you’ve known me,” I blurted before I could stop myself. He turned, his expression amused.
“God, sorry,” I said, mortified. “Bad timing.”
But he smiled. “No, you’re right. This is the first day of the rest of my life. That’s something, isn’t it? That’s enough.”
“I like that idea,” I said, and looked back out towards the sun, already a complete orb hovering above the horizon. “Yes. That’s enough.”