Tyra woke up with a reasonably warm and satisfying feeling about life in general on a warm February day. The sky was an uncannily soothing shade of light blue, permeated by long and thin clouds; an oneiric tiger she must have dreamt once or twice. The sun shone, and it was one of those winter days, in which the temperature would reach 25C and people would flock to the parks with an organized spontaneity. This was, in no small part, due her plans for the day. At 9:54 in the morning, she would take the metro to Helsingborg in order to pick up a book. She could, quite obviously, have the book sent to her place. However, the mere sense of leaving home to hold the yellowing bundle of uncoated paper, with its matte blue cover on her hands, felt exhilarating.
She was not herself a very dedicated book collector; a fact that did not differentiate her from most people everywhere. Nor was she of those people who would actually read the very books they bought. Buying books and reading books were two completely independent and unattached aspects of social life by now. Everyone possessed a reader, while, on the other hand, paper was prohibitively expensive to be manufactured in large scale. Besides, every single citizen had the right to access the central library, which stored digital copies of virtually all forms of entertainment past, present and future. Digital storage is the most available resource in 27th century, while arable land is quite scarce.
In a very broad sense, life was as peaceful and as plentiful as it had ever been in the history of mankind. The last wars had been fought more than a hundred years ago, and that included the largest part of the world that had been looked over and ignored ever since the first European ships were astute and lucky enough to leave the continent. Technology had advanced enough to provide the vast majority of people the possibility to live materially fulfilling lives. Aside from very few who decided to stay off the grid, such as some tribes of survivalists in the South of the United States, or a couple of indigenous tribes, all countries – give or take – could provide the same rights and purchasing power to their populations. Immigration was not a political topic anymore. It was a part of everyday life as much as eating, having sex, laughing, or commuting. All borders were open, and people would live in whichever country or city they would see fit. The last passports had been issued 80 years ago; people just moved back and forth. Some popular cities – New York, London, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, Jerusalem, Tokyo – had a system of quotas and lines to accommodate its population. It was also in those cities were the difference of accumulated wealth showed itself more clearly. The best apartments and houses had been owned by people with the same last names for around 400 years. Furthermore, those were the places that created most popular cultural products consumed throughout the planet. In the rest of the world, dreams and ambitions had the shape of their instantly recognizable outlines.
She sat down on a red velvet seat from across an old lady who smiled at her and then kept looking at her screen. This was the proper etiquette: one or two seconds of recognition towards a stranger that would be, due to the circumstances, a bit too close to one’s personal space. She reciprocated the act, but instead of entertaining herself with her tablet, she looked over to the other passengers. She felt somewhat unease, as she noticed that she was the only one not paying attention to her tablet; she felt even more unease when she concluded, through a process of simple logic, that no one could notice that she was not acting like the others. This felt even more lonely than inferring – with a large degree of probability – that they did not care. She looked at the window and saw unintelligible shades of black moving and heard (or imagined she did) the very low buzz of the vacuum-powered train. She turned on her tablet.
This would not be the first book Tyra had purchased from Perssons Antikvariat, located some forty minutes away from her home. She had managed to collect around 40 to 50 books in the shelves of her 2-bedroom apartment in the old extended centre of Malmö, mostly bought from them. Jakob, a short and decent man who owned the store and was in his 50s, knew her taste (and of all his costumers) quite well. He helped her select books that complemented her flowers, pillows, paintings and posters in a harmonic way. She took an interest for books whose spine were of shades of blue, as she believed they contrasted well to the shades of both green and red that she almost always had as her colour setup for the last couple of years.
Like all people, Tyra Niang-Larsson bought books for the visual and material value they possessed. She once tried to read one of the books she bought. She told her reader to download a copy of it. The book she had bought had been printed in the 22nd century and was a part of a then rather popular literary tradition called ‘fan-fiction’. Never before was the writing and printing of literature so accessible and so popular than in that period. Upon quick research, she found out that the author was a man who had published around 300 titles in less than 20 years, all based on other literary characters both contemporary to him and much older. Never before had she read anything so revoltingly awful. The book was as vacuous as it could be; not enough, even to spark a hint of curiosity after a dozen of pages. The book’s spine, on the other hand, was simply splendid. Just like all people, she read using a reader and just like most people, she did not necessarily care to even research or download the books she bought. It was common knowledge that the books that had survived long enough to become an antique did not necessarily have any aesthetic value to them. It was merely luck. As the production of real books had stopped for more than a century, reading became totally uncoupled from paper, or any static surface, whatsoever.
Suddenly, when the train reached Lund Central Station, she heard her name being called. She slowly looked over her tablet, waiting for a second call, a bit louder and closer. It was Patrik, who was coming towards her and sat in front of her, as the old lady (was it an old lady?, she thought…) had already left. She took off her headphones, shut off her screen and greeted him politely with a quick smile.
“Hey you! How is it going?” she asked with a perfect mixture of congeniality and disinterest.
“I am doing fine, how about you?” he answered with an imperfect mixture of tiredness and melancholia.
“I am also quite well.” This time, she had been honest, albeit shallowly. There was a moment of a rather uncomfortable silence; as it was not simply silence, but rather a shared one. And she proceeded: “I am going to Perssons, I ordered a new book! It looks incredible! I even got curious enough to read it, but well, it was awful… How about you? Where are you heading to?”
Patrik bowed his head a little bit, he even considered smiling, but halfway through his thought, he gave up, showing her just a curiously awkward facial expression, which she, kindly enough, chose to ignore. Then he said: – Well, Tyra, I am going to get myself connected, you know.
She looked at him slightly puzzled. It is not as if she had never met anyone before whom had chosen to get connected, even if he was too young for that.
This practice started out as a way for providing hospice patients with some relief in their dying days. A chip would be implanted into one’s brain, and then connected to a neural network that would create an illusion, in which they would essentially mimic a younger version of themselves, in a moment in time that was considered joyful. Photographs, videos, songs, smells, books, everything would be fed to an IA, who would create a personalized universe in which pain, disease and decay would not exist. Once connected, the person could not be disconnected, living their last days in the simulation, while being feed intravenously. With time, the IA became able to create simulations which felt realistic for longer stretches of time. What began as a tool for alleviating the last days of palliative patients began to be used by others. Healthy yet elderly patients; those suffering from degenerative diseases, those who were in irreversible coma. Then, it evolved to those who felt that their existential pain and mourning were too hard to bear. A historical case was that of a father who had lost his son 40 years ago, and claimed that after that tragic incident, he had not been able to experience a single day of joy in his entire life. His story led to a series of newspaper articles, podcasts, philosophical symposiums, water cooler discussions, and most importantly, to political changes. After the developers of the technology denied him the procedure, he committed suicide, generating a large commotion in the whole world. Under which conditions could society control what a grown adult would do with his brain?
The answer would eventually evolve to none.
As more and more people, for a variety of reasons, decided to abandon their physical lives in exchange for a virtual one, the discussions came to be focused on the limits of those new lives. At first, the main companies would set a series of boundaries on what could be recreated. Most behaviours considered to be taboo would result in a reset of the brain back to the beginning of the simulation. However, a quick succession of reboots would eventually lead to an amount of stress to the brain, causing large strokes and the eventual death of the client. Those companies quickly realized that a no-control policy over the wishes of the client is preferable than the client dying on their hands. In the court of the public opinion, however, the damage would come regardless. News about people choosing to live the most horrific events in the history of mankind, of desiring to set themselves into the shoes of the most prolific criminals, of engaging into all types of immoral and unethical behaviours inside their simulations were, sixty-seven years after the process was first used, as much a part of the daily conversation as the technology in itself. Ironically, the consumption of those news was, in itself, a way in which people consumed also the technology. They too had their lives shaped by them; and, in a time of few to non-existent concerns, nothing was more valuable than something to be entertained by, a fact that those companies had quickly grasped from the start. People would shake their heads and would repeat that it least it was all inside a sick person’s imagination. No one would be truly harmed outside of their synaptic connections, after all.
Tyra looked at Patrik and took in his features. His dark hair and his green eyes, his slightly big and crooked nose, his thin lip like a line throughout a face that had not been shaved in some days. She looked at his hair, it was tousled and scruffy. Patrik had the air of a counterculture figure from history books she had skimmed through in college. His teeth were white and meek, and he hardly ever shown them when he smiled, a fact that she had just noticed for the first time. She felt a tremendous sense of melancholia, as if the levees of her carefully manicured life had begun to leak. She had known Patrik since they were in grade school. He had sat behind her throughout most of their classes. In high school, he confessed that he was in love with her; however, she did not feel the same. They drifted apart and ran into each other again, at a party in Lund. In a series of hazy occurrences, they slept together, and did so three or four times again after that. However, it fizzled out and they decided to remain friends, a status that they truly never had shared. They would, from time to time, meet at the same social events and were not only civil, but rather, could even partake in lively conversations, especially if alcohol, marijuana or psilocybin was involved. More rarely than that, they would meet up for a cup of coffee and just talk about life. They always sent each other invitations for social events, but neither would be too disappointed if the other did not show up.
And now she would never see him again. The constant that Patrik (and others, including, of course, Njall Persson) was an underappreciated aspect of a life of virtually no concerns, and definitely no structural changes. As she knew, with a suffocating certainty, that she would never truly have to worry for a single day in her life, she held on to the comfort of randomly running into friends and acquaintances she had collected throughout the years. Patrik was not, in itself, irreplaceable. No one in the circle of people she knew was. She knew that Patrik’s decision was drastic, particularly when accounting for his age, he was a statistic outlier.
Yet, there was a dreadful sense of ennui that came from hearing him tell that he would be connected. She could not, as of now, quite grasp it. She wanted to, while at the same time, she could not muster the courage to do so. She did not dare looking into the abyss, while not daring to leave its proximity. This made her even more restless than at first. She tapped the armrest in her seat and arched her eyebrows without noticing, and then asked with her voice half an octave above her normal range.
“Why? Why are you connecting, Patrik? Is there anything wrong with your life right now? Are you depressed? Are you sick? I am sorry for the questions, it’s that I am not used to people at our age doing so just for doing so? Do you have any sick desires you wanna live? Don’t worry, I am not here to judge, what’s in your brain, is in your brain, after all-” she said those words in a succession without truly weighing them, nor pausing between them. She barely noticed that she was still speaking when he interrupted her.
“No, no. I am not. I feel fine.”
“I am just bored. I have gotten tired of, you know, life in itself. There is not much to do or accomplished, when one can virtually have it all.”
Tyra knew he was right. She also thought he was an idiot. Those two facts fought inside her brain and as much as she tried, she could not reconcile them. However, she could not ignore the fact that if he had decided to move to another continent or even the Moon, she would not have felt his absence as much as she does now. They would not have seen each other with the same frequency, perchance, never again. In this scenario, he could have lived his life, connected during his old days, and then died, without her ever thinking about him, and this would not move her the slightest. Then she asked, almost threateningly: – but, how could you be bored with life?
“I just am,” he answered shyly and with the corner of his mouth. “I want to live like people lived in the old days, you know, when things were a bit tougher and harder… but, anyways, this is my stop. If I don’t ever see you again, Tyra, I hope you have a good life. You were a kind friend, and I still remember how much I was in love with you when I was 13. Time flies, doesn’t it?” he said while disembarking from the train and waving at her with a big smile, this time showing his teeth.
She did not have time to answer him as the doors closed and the train moved before she could realize. She sat by herself, recollecting her thoughts and rethinking the same non-original opinions on connecting she had heard from the newspapers and the radio since she was a little girl. She had just arrived at her station. She walked paying even less attention to her surroundings than usual. She got into the bookstore and Persson was talking to another client. She normally exchanged a few minutes of prosaic conversation with the stubby, old man, but this time she just picked the book that he had left at the counter, and went back to the train station. After placing the book on her purse, she got her tablet and texted Patrik:
“Will I be at your simulation?”
She never received an answer.
Tiago Duarte Dias is originally from Rio de Janeiro but has immigrated to Sweden and currently resides in Malmö. He has published poems both in English and in Portuguese poetry magazines (7Letras and Dyst),he is also the leader of a musical project Warmest Winter. Currently he is seeking an academic career in anthropology, while struggling to change diapers of his first child born in December of this year.