Authors: Jo Walton
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Matthew Corley regained consciousness reading the newspaper.
None of those facts are unproblematic. It wasn't exactly a newspaper, nor was the process by which he received the information really reading. The question of his consciousness is a matter of controversy, and the process by which he regained it certainly illegal. The issue of whether he could be considered in any way to have a claim to assert the identity of Matthew Corley is even more vexed. It is probably best to for us to embrace subjectivity, to withhold judgement. Let us say that the entity believing himself to be Matthew Corley feels that he regained consciousness while reading an article in the newspaper about the computer replication of personalities of the dead. He believes that it is 1994, the year of his death, that he regained consciousness after a brief nap, and that the article he was reading is nonsense. All of these beliefs are wrong. He dismissed the article because he understands enough to know that simulating consciousness in DOS or Windows 3.1 is inherently impossible. He is right about that much, at least.
Perhaps we should pull back further, from Matthew to Essie. Essie is Matthew's biographer, and she knows everything about him, all of his secrets, only some of which she put into her book. She put all of them into the simulation, for reasons which are secrets of her own. They are both good at secrets. Essie thinks of this as something they have in common. Matthew doesn't, because he hasn't met Essie yet, though he will soon.
Matthew had secrets which he kept successfully all his life. Before he died he believed that all his secrets had become out-of-date. He came out as gay in the late eighties, for instance, after having kept his true sexual orientation a secret for decades. His wife, Annette, had died in 1982, at the early age of fifty-eight, of breast cancer. Her cancer would be curable today, for those who could afford it, and Essie has written about how narrowly Annette missed that cure. She has written about the excruciating treatments Annette went through, and about how well Matthew coped with his wife's illness and death. She has written about the miraculous NHS, which made Annette's illness free, so that although Matthew lost his wife he was not financially burdened too. She hopes this might affect some of her readers. She has also tried to treat Annette as a pioneer who made it easier for those with cancer coming after her, but it was a difficult argument to make, as Annette died too early for any of today's treatments to be tested on her. Besides, Essie does not care much about Annette, although she was married to Matthew for thirty years and the mother of his daughter, Sonia. Essie thinks, and has written, that Annette was a beard, and that Matthew's significant emotional relationships were with men. Matthew agrees, now, but then Matthew exists now as a direct consequence of Essie's beliefs about Matthew. It is not a comfortable relationship for either of them.
Essie is at a meeting with her editor, Stanley, in his office. It is a small office cubicle, and sounds of other people at work come over the walls. Stanley's office has an orange cube of a desk and two edgy black chairs.
“All biographers are in love with the subjects of their biographies,” Stanley says, provocatively, leaning forwards in his black chair.
“Nonsense,” says Essie, leaning back in hers. “Besides, Corley was gay.”
“But you're not,” Stanley says, flirting a little.
“I don't think my sexual orientation is an appropriate subject for this conversation,” Essie says, before she thinks that perhaps flirting with Stanley would be a good way to get the permission she needs for the simulation to be added to the book. It's too late after that. Stanley becomes very formal and correct, but she'll get her permission anyway. Stanley, representing the publishing conglomerate of George Allen and Katzenjammer, thinks there is money to be made out of Essie's biography of Matthew. Her biography of Isherwood won an award, and made money for GA and K, though only a pittance for Essie. Essie is only the content provider after all. Everyone except Essie was very pleased with how things turned out, both the book and the simulation. Essie had hoped for more from the simulation, and she has been more careful in constructing Matthew.
“Of course, Corley isn't as famous as Isherwood,” Stanley says, withdrawing a little.
Essie thinks he wants to punish her for slapping him down on sex by attacking Matthew. She doesn't mind. She's good at defending Matthew, making her case. “All the really famous people have been done to death,” she says. “Corley was an innovative director for the BBC, and of course he knew everybody from the forties to the nineties, half a century of the British arts. Nobody has ever written a biography. And we have the right kind of documentationâenough film of how he moved, not just talking heads, and letters and diaries.”
“I've never understood why the record of how they moved is so important,” Stanley says, and Essie realises this is a genuine question and relaxes as she answers it.
“A lot more of the mind is embodied in the whole body than anybody realised,” she explains. “A record of the whole body in motion is essential, or we don't get anything anywhere near authentic. People are a gestalt.”
“But it means we can't even try for anybody before the twentieth century,” Stanley says. “We wanted Socrates, Descartes, Marie Curie.”
“Messalina, Theodora, Lucrezia Borgia,” Essie counters. “That's where the money is.”
Stanley laughs. “Go ahead. Add the simulation of Corley. We'll back you. Send me the file tomorrow.”
“Great,” Essie says, and smiles at him. Stanley isn't powerful, he isn't the enemy, he's just another person trying to get by, like Essie, though sometimes it's hard for Essie to remember that when he's trying to exercise his modicum of power over her. She has her permission, the meeting ends.
Essie goes home. She lives in a flat at the top of a thirty storey building in Swindon. She works in London and commutes in every day. She has a second night job in Swindon, and writes in her spare time. She has visited the site of the house where Matthew and Annette lived in Hampstead. It's a Tesco today. There isn't a blue plaque commemorating Matthew, but Essie hopes there will be someday. The house had four bedrooms, though there were never more than three people living in it, and only two after Sonia left home in 1965. After Annette died, Matthew moved to a flat in Bloomsbury, near the British Museum. Essie has visited it. It's now part of a lawyer's office. She has been inside and touched door mouldings Matthew also touched. Matthew's flat, where he lived alone and was visited by young men he met in pubs, had two bedrooms. Essie doesn't have a bedroom, as such; she sleeps in the same room she eats and writes in. She finds it hard to imagine the space Matthew had, the luxury. Only the rich live like that now. Essie is thirty-five, and has student debt that she may never pay off. She cannot imagine being able to buy a house, marry, have a child. She knows Matthew wasn't considered rich, but it was a different world.
Matthew believes that he is in his flat in Bloomsbury, and that his telephone rings, although actually of course he is a simulation and it would be better not to consider too closely the question of exactly where he is. He answers his phone. It is Essie calling. All biographers, all writers, long to be able to call their subjects and talk to them, ask them the questions they left unanswered. That is what Stanley would think Essie wants, if he knew she was accessing Matthew's simulation tonightâeither that or that she was checking whether the simulation was ready to release. If he finds out, that is what she will tell him she was doing. But she isn't exactly doing either of those things. She knows Matthew's secrets, even the ones he never told anybody and which she didn't put in the book. And she is using a phone to call him that cost her a lot of money, an illegal phone that isn't connected to anything. That phone is where Matthew is, insofar as he is anywhere.
“You were in Cambridge in the nineteen thirties,” she says, with no preliminaries.
“Who is this?” Matthew asks, suspicious.
Despite herself, Essie is delighted to hear his voice, and hear it sounding the way it does on so many broadcast interviews. His accent is impeccable, old fashioned. Nobody speaks like that now.
“My name is Esmeralda Jones,” Essie says. “I'm writing a biography of you.”
“I haven't given you permission to write a biography of me, young woman,” Matthew says sternly.
“There really isn't time for this,” Essie says. She is tired. She has been working hard all day, and had the meeting with Stanley. “Do you remember what you were reading in the paper just now?”
“About computer consciousness?” Matthew asks. “Nonsense.”
“It's 2064,” Essie says. “You're a simulation of yourself. I am your biographer.”
Matthew sits down, or imagines that he is sitting down, at the telephone table. Essie can see this on the screen of her phone. Matthew's phone is an old dial model, with no screen, fixed to the wall. “Wells,” he says. “When the Sleeper Wakes.”
“Not exactly,” Essie says. “You're a simulation of your old self.”