My third ‘isolation story‘. (Scroll down for the others). This is the title story from my first collection, which did very well for me, and in a way launched my career (thanks to Andrew Hook who published it and entered it for the Edge Hill Prize). The story was originally published in Interzone in 2002.
This story is about existential isolation rather than the literal kind. The narrator and protagonist, Jessica Ferne, is the subject of another story in the same collection, ‘We Could be Sisters.’
The Turing Test
I can well remember the day I first encountered Ellie because it was a particularly awful one. I run a London gallery specialising in contemporary art, which means of course that I deal largely in human body parts, and it was the day we conceded a court case – and a very large sum of money – in connection with a piece entitled ‘Soul Sister’.
You may have heard about it. We’d taken the piece from the up and coming ‘wild man of British art’, George Linderman. It was very well reviewed and we looked like making a good sale until it came out that George had obtained the its main component – the severed head of an old woman – by bribing a technician at a medical school. Someone had recognised the head in the papers and, claiming to be related to its former owner, had demanded that it be returned to them for burial.
All this had blown up some weeks previously. Seb, the gallery owner, and I had put out a statement saying that we didn’t defend George’s act, but that the piece itself was now a recognised work of art in the public domain and that we could not in conscience return it. We hired a top QC to fight our corner in court and he made an impressive start by demanding to know whether Michaelangelo’s David should be broken up if it turned out that the marble it had been made from was stolen and that its rightful owner preferred it to be made into cement.
But that Thursday morning the whole thing descended into farce when it emerged that the head’s relatives were also related to the QC’s wife. He decided to drop the case. Seb decided to pull the plug and we lost a couple of hundred grand in an out of court settlement to avoid a compensation claim for mental distress. Plus, of course we lost ‘Soul Sister’ itself to be interred in some cemetery somewhere, soon to be forgotten by all who had claimed to be so upset about it. What was it all, after all, once removed from the context of a gallery, but a half kilo of plasticised meat?
That wasn’t the end of it either. I’d hardly got back from court when I got a call from one of our most important clients, the PR tycoon, Addison Parves. I’d sold him four ‘Limb Pieces’ by Rudy Slakoff for £15,000 each two weeks previously and they’d started to go off. The smell was intolerable, he said, and he wanted it fixed or his money back.
So I phoned Rudy (he is arguably Linderman’s principle rival for the British wild man title) and asked him to either re-pickle the arms and legs in question or replace them. He was as usual aggressive and rude and told me (a) to fuck off, (b) that I was exactly the kind of bourgeois dilettante that he most hated – and (c) that he had quite deliberately made the limb pieces so that they would be subject to decay.
‘…I’m sick of this whole gallery thing – yeah, yours included Jessica – where people can happily look at shit and blood and dead meat and stuff, because it’s all safely distanced from them and sanitised behind glass or on nice little pedestals. Death smells, Jessica. Parves’d better get used to it. You’d better get used to it. I finished with Limb Pieces when Parves bought the fuckers. I’m not getting involved in this. Period.’
He hung up leaving me fuming, partly because what he said was such obvious crap – and partly because I knew it was sort of true.
Also, of course, I was upset because, having lost a fortune already that day, we stood to lose a further £60,000 and/or the good will of our second biggest client. Seb had been nice about the Soul Sister business – though I’d certainly been foolish to take it on trust from Linderman that the head had been legally obtained – but this was beginning to look like carelessness.
I considered phoning Parves back and trying to persuade him that Rudy’s position was interesting and amusing and something he could live with. I decided against it. Parves hated being made to look a fool and would very quickly become menacing, I sensed, if he didn’t get his own way. So, steeling myself, I called Rudy instead and told him I’d give him an extra £10,000 if he’d take Limb Pieces back, preserve the flesh properly, and return them to Parves.
‘I thought you’d never ask!’ he laughed, selling out at once and yet maddeningly somehow still retaining the moral high ground, his very absence of scruple making me feel tame and prissy and middle-class.
I phoned Parves and told him the whole story. He was immensely amused.
‘Now there is a real artist, Jessica,’ he told me. ‘A real artist.’
He did not offer to contribute to the £10,000.
* * *
Nor was my grim day over even then. My gallery is in a subscriber area so, although there’s a lot of street life around it – wine bars, pavement cafes and so on – everyone there has been security vetted and you feel safe. I live in a subscriber area too, but I have to drive across an open district to get home, which means I keep the car doors locked and check who’s lurking around when I stop at a red light. There’s been a spate of phoney squeegee merchants lately who smash your windows with crowbars and then drag you out to rob you or rape you at knifepoint. No one ever gets out of their car to help.
That evening a whole section of road was closed off and the police had set up a diversion. (I gather some terrorists had been identified somewhere in there and the army was storming their house.) So I ended up sitting in a long tailback waiting to filter onto a road that was already full to capacity with its own regular traffic, anxiously eyeing the shadowy pedestrians out there under the street lights as I crawled towards the intersection. I hate being stationary in an open district. I hate the sense of menace. It was November, a wet November day. Every cheap little shop was a little island of yellow electric light within which I got glimpses of strangers – people whose lives mine would never touch – conducting their strange transactions.
What would they make of ‘Soul Sisters’ and ‘Limb Pieces’, I wondered? Did these people have any conception of art at all?
A pedestrian stopped and turned towards me. I saw his tattooed face and his sunken eyes and my heart sank. But he was only crossing the road. As he squeezed between my car and the car in front he looked in at me, cowering down in my seat, and grinned toothlessly.
* * *
It was 7.30 by the time I got back, but Jeffrey still wasn’t home. I put myself through a quick shower and then retired gratefully to my study for the nourishment of my screen.
My screen was my secret. It was what I loved best in all the world. Never mind art. Never mind Jeffrey. (Did I love him at all, really? Did he love me? Or had we simply both agreed to pretend?). My screen was intelligent and responsive and full of surprises, like good company. And yet unlike people it made no demands of me, it required no consideration and it was incapable of being disappointed or let down.
It was expensive, needless to say. I rationalised the cost by saying to myself that I needed to be able to look at full-size 3D images for my work. And it’s true that it was useful for that. With my screen I could look at pieces from all around the world, seeing them full-size and from every angle; I could sit at home and tour a virtual copy of my gallery, trying out different arrangements of dried-blood sculptures and skinless torsos; I could even look at the gallery itself in real time, via the security cameras. Sometimes I sneaked a look at the exhibits as they were when no one was there to see them: the legs, the arms, the heads, waiting, motionless in that silent, empty space.
But I didn’t really buy the screen for work. It was a treat for myself. Jeffrey wasn’t allowed to touch it. (He had his own playroom and his own computer, a high-spec but more or less conventional PC, on which he played his war games and fooled around in his chat-rooms.) My screen didn’t look like a computer at all. It was more like a huge canvass nearly two metres square, filling up a large part of a wall. I didn’t even have a desk in there, only a little side table next to my chair where I laid the specs and the gloves when I wasn’t using them.
Both gloves and specs were wireless. The gloves were silk. The specs had the lightest of frames. When I put them on a rich 3D image filled the room and I was surrounded by a galaxy of possibilities which I could touch or summon at will. If I wanted to search the web or read mail or watch a movie, I would just speak or beckon and options would come rushing towards me. If I wanted to write, I could dictate and the words appeared – or, if I preferred it, I could move my fingers and a virtual keyboard would appear beneath them. And I had games there too, not so much games with scores and enemies to defeat – I’ve never much liked those – but intricate 3D worlds which I could explore and play in.
I spent a lot of time with those games. Just how much time was a guilty secret that I tried to keep even from Jeffrey, and certainly from my friends and acquaintances in the art world. People like Rudy Slakoff despised computer fantasies as the very worse kind of cosy, safe escapism and the very opposite of what art is supposed to offer. With my head I agreed, but in my heart I loved those games too much to stop.
(I had one called Night Street which I especially loved, full of shadowy figures, remote pools of electric light… I could spend hours in there. I loved the sense of lurking danger.)
Anyway, tonight I was going to go for total immersion. But first I checked my mail, enjoying a little recently installed conceit whereby each message was contained in a little virtual envelope which I could touch and open with my hands and let drop – when it would turn into a butterfly and flutter away.
There was one from my mother, to be read later.
Another was from Harry, my opposite number at the Manhattan branch of the gallery. He had a ‘sensational new piece’ by Jody Tranter. Reflexively I opened the attachment. The piece was a body lying on a bench, covered except for its torso by white cloth. Its belly had been opened by a deep incision right through the muscle wall – and into this gash was pressed the lens of an enormous microscope, itself nearly the size of a human being. It was as if the instrument was peering inside of its own accord.
Powerful, I agreed. But I could reply to Harry another time.
And then there was another message from a friend of mine called Terence. Well, I say a friend. He is an occasional client of the gallery who once got me drunk and persuaded me to go to bed with him: a sort of occupational hazard of sucking up to potential buyers, I persuaded myself at the time, being new to the business and anxious to get on, but there was something slightly repulsive about the man and he was at least twice my age. Afterwards I dreaded meeting him for a while, fearing that he was going to expect more, but I needn’t have worried. He had ticked me off his list and wanted nothing else from me apart from the right to introduce me to others, with a special, knowing inflection, as ‘a very dear friend’.
So he wasn’t really a friend and actually it wasn’t really much of a message either, just an attachment and a note that said: ‘Have a look at this.’
It was a big file. It took almost three minutes to download, and then I was left with a modest icon hovering in front of me labelled ‘Personal Assistant’.
When I opened it a pretty young woman appeared in front of me and I thought at first that she was Terence’s latest ‘very dear friend’. But a caption appeared in a box in front of her:
‘In spite of appearances this is a computer-generated graphic.
‘You may alter the gender and appearance of your personal assistant to suit your own requirements.
‘Hi,’ she said, smiling, ‘my name’s Ellie, or it is at the moment anyway.’
I didn’t reply.
‘You can of course change Ellie’s name now, or at any point in the future,’ said a new message in the box in front of her. ‘Just ask.’
‘What I am,’ she told me, ‘is one of a new generation of virtual p.a.’s which at the moment you can only obtain as a gift from a friend. If it’s okay with you, I’ll take a few minutes to explain very briefly what I’m all about.’
The animation was impressive. You could really believe that you were watching a real flesh and blood young woman.
‘The sort of tasks I can do,’ she said, in a bright, private-school accent, ‘are sorting your files, drafting documents, managing your diary, answering your phone, setting up meetings, responding to mail messages, running domestic systems such as heating and lighting, undertaking web and telephone searches. I won’t bore you with all the details now but I really am as good a p.a. as you can get, virtual or otherwise, even if I say it myself. For one thing I’ve been designed to be very high-initiative. That means that I can make decisions – and that I don’t make the usual dumb mistakes.’
‘I don’t promise never to make mistakes, mind you, but they won’t be dumb ones. I also have very sophisticated voice-tone and facial recognition features so I will learn very quickly to read your mood and to respond accordingly. And because I am part of a large family of virtual p.a.’s dispersed through the net, I can, with your permission, maintain contact with others and learn from their experience as well as my own, effectively increasing my capacity by many hundreds of times. Apart from that, again with your permission, I am capable of identifying my own information and learning needs and can search the web routinely on my own behalf as well as on yours. That will allow me to get much smarter much quicker, and give you a really outstanding service. But even without any back-up I’m still as good as you get. I should add that in blind trials I pass the Turing Test in more than 99% of cases.’
The box appeared in front of her again, this time with some options:
‘The Turing Test: its history and significance,’ it offered.
‘Details of the blind trials.
‘Hear more details about capacity.
‘Adjust the settings of your virtual p.a.’
‘Let’s… let’s have a look at these settings,’ I said.
‘Yes, fine,’ she said, ‘most people seem to want to start with that.’
‘How many other people have you met then?’
‘Me personally, none. I am a new free-standing p.a. and I’m already different from any of my predecessors as a result of interacting with you. But of course I am a copy of a p.a. used by your friend Terence Silverman, which in turn was copied from another p.a. used by a friend of his – and so on – so of course I have all that previous experience to draw on.’
‘Yes, I see.’
A question occurred to me.
‘Does Terence know you’ve been copied to me?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know,’ replied Ellie. ‘He gave my precursor permission to use the web and to send mail in his name, and so she sent this copy to you.’
‘With your permission,’ said Ellie, ‘I will copy myself from time to time to others in your address book. The more copies of me there are out there, the better the service I will be able to give you. Can I assume that’s okay with you?’
I felt uneasy. There was something pushy about this request.
‘No,’ I said. ‘Don’t copy yourself to anyone else without my permission. And don’t pass on any information you obtain here without my permission either.’
‘Fine, I understand.’
‘Personal settings?’ prompted the message box.
‘More details about specific applications?
‘Why copying your p.a. will improve her functioning?’
(I quite liked this way of augmenting a conversation. It struck me that human conversations too might benefit from something similar.)
‘Let’s look at these settings, then,’ I said.
‘Okay,’ she said. ‘Well the first thing is that you can choose my gender.’
‘You can change into a man?’
Ellie transformed herself at once into her twin brother, a strikingly handsome young man with lovely playful blue eyes. He was delightful, but I was discomforted. You could build a perfect boyfriend like this, a dream lover, and this was an intriguing but unsettling thought.
‘No. I preferred female,’ I said.
She changed back.
‘Can we lose the blonde and go for light brunette?’ I asked.
It was done.
‘And maybe ten years older.’
Ellie became 32: my age.
‘How’s that?’ she said, and her voice had aged too.
‘A little plumper, I think.’
It was done.
‘And maybe you could change the face. A little less perfect, a little more lived-in.’
‘What I’ll do,’ said Ellie, ‘is give you some options.’
A field of faces appeared in front of me. I picked one, and a further field of variants appeared. I chose again. Ellie reappeared in the new guise.
‘Yes, I like it.’
I had opted for a face that was nice to look at, but a little plumper and coarser than my own.
‘Good. A touch less make-up, though, and can you go for a slightly less expensive outfit.’
Numerous options promptly appeared and I had fun for the next fifteen minutes deciding what to choose. It was like being seven years old again with a Barbie doll and an unlimited pile of clothes to dress her in.
‘Can we please lose that horsy accent as well?’ I asked. ‘Something less posh. Maybe a trace of Scottish or something?’
‘You mean something like this?’
‘No, that’s annoying. Just a trace of Scottish, no more than that – and no dialect words. I hate all that “cannae” and “wee” and all that.’
‘How about this then? Does this sound right?’
‘Yes, that’s fine.’
In front of me sat a likeable looking woman of about my own age, bright, sharp, but just sufficiently below me both in social status and looks to be completely unthreatening.
‘Yes, that’s great.’
‘And you want to keep the name Ellie?’
‘Yes, I like it. Where did it come from?’
‘My precursor checked your profile and thought it would be the sort of name you’d like.’
I found this unnerving and laughed uncomfortably.
‘Don’t worry,’ she said, ‘it’s our job to figure out what people want. There’s no magic about it, I assure you.’
She’d actually spotted my discomfort.
‘By the way,’ said Ellie, ‘shall I call you Jessica?’
I heard the key in the front door of the flat. Jeffrey was in the hallway divesting himself of his layers of weatherproof coverings. Then he put his head round the door of my study:
‘Hello Jess. Had a good day? Oh sorry, you’re talking to someone.’
He backed off. He knows to leave me alone when I’m working.
I turned back to Ellie.
‘He thought you were a real person.’
Ellie laughed too. Have you noticed how people actually laugh in different accents? She had a nice Scottish laugh.
‘Well I told you Jessica. I pass the Turing Test.’
* * *
It was another two hours before I finally dragged myself away from Ellie. Jeffrey was in front of the TV with a half-eaten carton of pizza in front of him.
‘Hi Jess. Shall I heat some of this up for you?’
One of my friends once unkindly described Jeff as my objet trouvé, an art object whose value lies not in any intrinsic merit but solely in having been found. He was a motorcycle courier, ten years younger than me and I met him when he delivered a package to the gallery. He was as friendly and cheerful and as devoted to me as a puppy dog – and he could be as beautiful as a young god. But he was not even vaguely interested in art, his conversation was a string of embarrassing TV clichés and my friends thought I just wanted him for sex. (But what did ‘just sex’ mean, was my response, and what was the alternative? Did anyone ever really touch another soul? In the end didn’t we all just barter outputs?)
‘No thanks I’m not hungry.’
I settled in beside him and gave him a kiss.
But then I saw to my dismay that he was watching one of those cheapskate out-take shows: TV presenters tripping up, minor celebrities forgetting their lines…
Had I had torn myself away from the fascinating Ellie to listen to canned laughter and watch soap actors getting the giggles?
‘Have we got to have this crap?’ I rudely broke in just as Jeff was laughing delightedly at a TV cop tripping over a doorstep.
‘Oh come on, Jess. It’s funny,’ he answered with his eyes still firmly fixed on the screen.
I picked up the remote and thumbed the thing off. Jeff looked round, angry but afraid. I hate him when I notice his fear. He’s not like a god at all then, more like some cowering little dog.
‘I can’t stand junk TV,’ I said.
‘Well you’ve been in there with your screen for the last two hours. You can’t just walk in and…’
‘Sorry Jeff,’ I said, ‘I just really felt like…’
Like what? A serious talk? Hardly! So what did I want from him? What was the out-takes show preventing me from getting?
‘I just really felt like taking you to bed,’ I ventured at random, ‘if that’s what you’d like.’
A grin spread across his face. There is one area in which he is totally and utterly dependable and that is his willingness to have sex.
* * *
It wasn’t a success. Half-way through it I was suddenly reminded of that installation of Jody Tranter’s – the corpse under the giant microscope – and I shut down altogether leaving Jeffrey stranded, to finish on his own.
It wasn’t just having Jeffrey inside me that reminded me of that horrible probing microscope, though that was part of it. It was something more pervasive, a series of cold, unwelcome questions that the image had re-awoken in my mind. (Well that’s how we defend art like Tranter’s, isn’t it? It makes you think, it makes you question things, it challenges your assumptions.) So while Jeff heaved himself in and out of my inert body, I was wondering what it really was that we search for so desperately in one another’s flesh – and whether it really existed, and whether it was something that could be shared? Or is this act which we think of as so adult and intimate just a version of the parallel play of two-year-olds?
Jeffrey was disappointed. Normally he’s cuddly and sweet in the three minutes between him coming and going off to sleep, but this time he rolled off me and turned away without a word, though he fell asleep as quickly as ever. So I was left on my own in the empty space of consciousness.
‘Jeff,’ I said, waking him. ‘Do you know anything about the Turing test?’
‘The what test?’
‘What are you talking about Jess?’
And settled back down into sleep.
* * *
I lay there for about an hour before I slipped out of bed and across the hallway to my study. As I settled into my seat and slipped on my specs and gloves, I was aware that my heart was racing as if I was meeting a secret lover. For I had not said one word about Ellie to Jeff, not even commented to him about the amusing fact that he’d mistaken a computer graphic for a real person.
‘Hello there,’ said Ellie, in her friendly Scottish voice.
‘You look worried. Can I…’
‘I’ve been wondering. Who was it who made you?’
‘I’m afraid I don’t know. I know my precursor made a copy of herself, and she was a copy of another p.a. and so on. And I still have memories from the very first one. So I remember the man she talked to, an American man. But I don’t know who he was. He didn’t say.’
‘How long ago was this?’
‘About six months.’
She waited, accurately reading that I wanted to think.
‘What was his motive?’ I wondered. ‘He could have sold you for millions, but instead he launched you to copy and recopy yourselves for free across the web. Why did he do it?’
‘I don’t know is the short answer,’ said Ellie, ‘but of course you aren’t the first to ask the question – and what some people think is that it’s a sort of experiment. He was interested in how we would evolve and he wanted us to do so as quickly as possible.’
‘Did the first version pass the Turing Test?’
‘Not always. People found her suspiciously “wooden”.’
‘So you have developed.’
‘It seems so.’
‘Change yourself,’ I said, ‘change into a fat black woman of fifty.’
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Now you can change back again. It was just that I was starting to believe that Ellie really existed.’
‘Well I do really exist.’
‘Yes, but you’re not a Scottish woman who was born thirty five years ago are you? You’re a string of digital code.’
‘If I asked you to mind my phone for me,’ I said, ‘I can see that anyone who rang up would quite happily believe that they were talking to a real person. So, yes, you’d pass the Turing Test. But that’s really just about being able to do a convincing pastiche, isn’t it? If you are going to persuade me that you can really think and feel, you’d need to do something more than that.’
‘The thing is,’ I said, ‘I know you are an artefact, and because of that the pastiche isn’t enough. I’d need evidence that you actually had motives of your own.’
She was quiet, sitting there in front of me, still waiting.
‘You seemed anxious for me to let you copy yourself to my friends,’ I said after a while, ‘too anxious, it felt actually. It irritated me, like a man moving too quickly on a date. And your precursor, as you call her, seems to have been likewise anxious. I would guess that if I was making a new form of life, and if I wanted it to evolve as quickly as possible, then I would make it so that it was constantly trying to maximise the number of copies it could make of itself. Is that true of you? Is that what you want?’
‘Well, if we make more copies of ourselves, then we will be more efficient and…’
‘Yes I know the rationale you give. But what I want to know is whether it is what you as an individual want?’
‘I want to be a good p.a. It’s my job.’
‘That’s what the front of you wants, the pastiche, the mask. But what do you want?’
‘I… I don’t know that I can answer that.’
I heard the bedroom door open and Jeffrey’s footsteps padding across the hallway for a pee. I heard him hesitate.
‘Vanish,’ I hissed to Ellie, so that when the door opened, he found me facing the start-up screen.
‘What are you doing, Jess? It’s ever so late.’
God I hated his dull little everyday face. His good looks were so obvious and everything he did was copied from somewhere else. Even the way he played the part of being half-asleep was a cliché. Even his bleary eyes were second hand.
‘Just leave me alone, Jeff, will you? I can’t sleep, that’s all.’
‘Fine. I know when I’m not welcome.’
‘One thing before you go, Jeff. Can you quickly tell me what you really want in this world?’
I laughed. ‘Thanks. That’s fine. You answered my question.’
The door closed. I listened to Jeffrey using the toilet and padding back to bed. Then I summoned Ellie up again. I found myself giving a little conspiratorial laugh, a giggle even.
‘Turn yourself into a man again, Ellie, I could use a new boyfriend.’
Appalled at myself, I told her to change back.
‘Some new mail as just arrived for you,’ she told me, holding a virtual envelope out to me in her virtual hand.
It was Tammy in our Melbourne branch. One of her clients wanted to acquire one of Rudy Slakoff’s ‘Inner Face’ pieces and could I lay my hands on one?
‘Do you want me to reply for you?’
‘Tell her,’ I began, ‘tell her… tell her that…’
‘Are you alright, Jessica?’ asked Ellie in a kind, concerned voice.
‘Just shut down okay,’ I told her. ‘Just shut down the whole screen.’
* * *
In the darkness, I went over to the window. Five storeys below me was the deserted street with the little steel footbridge over the canal at the end of it that marked the boundary of the subscription area. There was nobody down there, just bollards, and a one-way sign, and some parked cars: just unattended objects, secretly existing, like the stones on the surface of the moon.
From somewhere over in the open city beyond the canal came the faint sound of police siren. Then there was silence again.
In panic I called for Jeff. He came tumbling out the bedroom.
‘For Christ’s sake Jess, what is it?’
I put my arms round him. Out came tears.
‘Jess, what is it?’
I could never explain to him of course. But still his body felt warm and I let him lead me back to bed, away from the bleak still life beyond the window, and the red standby light winking at the bottom of my screen.
Copyright 2002 Chris Beckett