Oral Traditions in a Virtual-Reality World
We retell the best stories, the ones that resonate, that teach how to be human. I learned that first from Shakespeare when my 15 year old self was humbled, shocked, bewildered to hear how the Bard repurposed old plots. Was he cheating? Isn’t originality the brilliance of a great writer? I had assumed my peers would recreate the world in our own brilliantly original image. There followed a loss of generational self-esteem when I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and discovered a shocking secret: 60’s white counterculture had not invented “cool.” Perhaps this was the beginning of my fascination with oral tradition and how it passes on culture through time, reappearing as fresh and new to each subsequent crop of children. Myths and legends, riddles and jokes, folk tales and wonder tales are retellings able to survive a natural selection process both random and ruthless. The story is oblivious to its teller.
Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan (Now retold on NetFlix … unfortunately in an uneven manner, some of it compelling, some of it embarrassingly trite … Read the book.) includes a grim Grimm-type fairy tale. I’m reminded of The Juniper Tree, seed for my own alchemical horror story The Black Walnut Tree. In European wonder tales both trees and poor woodcutters are ubiquitous, set in a remote, stylized past. Morgan’s 26th century space-age fairy tale harkens back not to medieval peasant life, but to the beginnings of the industrial age, when scary machines replace scary forests. The beast emerging from the scary machine is named after a 20th century comic book character, The Patchwork Man, who in turn was modeled after Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’s monster, who was a revival (pun intended) of the Egyptian god Osiris, his murdered, dismembered body pieced back together by widow/sister goddess Isis.
Morgan delivers his oral tale perfectly in context. Takeshi Kovacs, noir detective, retells to his love interest what was first told to him during childhood. Banter and jokes interrupt Kovacs’ narrative … comic relief to leaven its dreadfulness but also to convey the rambling, interactive nature of fireside story telling. I have deleted side conversations in the following:
You want to hear a genuine first-generation Harlan’s World myth? An off world fairy story? Where I come from originally, Newpest, used to be a textile town. There’s a plant on Harlan’s World called belaweed, grows in the sea and on most shorelines, too. Dry it out, treat it with chemicals, and you can make something like cotton from it. During the Settlement Newpest was the belacotton capital of the World. Conditions in the mills were pretty bad even back then, and when the Quellists turned everything upside down it got worse. The belacotton industry went into decline, and there was massive unemployment, unrelieved poverty, and fuck-all the Unsettlers could do about it. They were revolutionaries, not economists.
Some pretty horrible stories came out of the textile slums around that time. Stuff like the Threshing Sprites, the Cannibal of Kitano Street. Yeah, well, bad times. So you get the story of Mad Ludmila the seamstress. This is one they used to tell to kids to make them do their chores and come home before dark. Mad Ludmila had a failing belacotton mill and three children who never helped her out. They used to stay out late playing the arcades across town and sleep all day. So one day, the story goes, Ludmila flips out.
The story goes, one evening as her children were getting ready to go out, she spiked their coffee with something, and when they were semiconscious, but still aware, mind you, she drove them out to Mitcham’s Point and threw them into the threshing tanks one by one. They say you could hear the screams right across the swamp.
Of course, the police were suspicious but they couldn’t prove anything. Couple of the kids had been into some nasty chemicals, they were jerking around with the local yakuza, no one was really surprised when they disappeared.
See, Ludmila got rid of her fucking useless children, but it didn’t really help. She still needed someone to man the curing vats, to haul the belaweed up and down the mill stairs, and she was still broke. So what did she do? What she did, she picked the bits of her mangled kids out of the thresher and stitched them into a huge three-meter-tall carcass. And then, on a night sacred to the dark powers, she invoked a Tengu — a sort of mischief maker — a demon, I guess you’d call it. She invoked the Tengu to animate the carcass, and then she stitched it in. She stitched the soul of the Tengu inside, but she promised to release it if it served her will nine years. Nine’s a sacred number in the Harlanite pantheons, so she was as bound to the agreement as the Tengu.
Unfortunately, Tengu are not known for their patience, and I don’t supposed old Ludmila was the easiest person to work for, either. One night, not a third of the way through the contract, the Tengu turned on her and tore her apart. Some say it was Kishimo-jin’s doing, that she whispered terrible incitements into the Tengu’s ear. Kishimo-jin is the divine protectress of children. It was her revenge on Ludmila for the death of the children. That’s one version.
Well, anyway. The Tengu tore her apart, but in so doing, it locked itself into the spell and was condemned to remain imprisoned in the carcass. And now, with the original invoker of the spell dead, and worse still, betrayed, the carcass began to rot. A piece here, a piece there, but irreversibly. And so the Tengu was driven to prowling the streets and mills of the textile quarter, looking for fresh meat to replace the rotting portions of its body. It always killed children, because the parts it needed to replace were child sized, but however many times it sewed new flesh to the carcass, after a few days the new portions began to putrefy, and it was driven out once more to hunt. In the Quarter they call it the Patchwork Man. (204-206)
Frankenstein’s patchwork monster has been re-envisioned endlessly in the two hundred years since Shelley imagined it. Morgan refreshes the concept for society’s anticipated leap into the Singularity, when it is said we will upload consciousness into a machine so the mental Self continues after the body’s been threshed. Are we on the cusp of finding an alchemical elixir? Is immortality possible, or is this wishful thinking? More of the same … the same wishful thinking that has driven occult practices since humans first gained consciousness and recognized death.
Morgan postulates the Singularity, adds in miniaturization and body cloning, and then speculates on the results. Suddenly we can dismiss the kumbaya stuff about the wholistic Self and the essential integration of spirit and flesh. Suddenly there really is a binary but without a soul’s involvement. A weird, digital duality chops apart mind and body with all the subtly of a meat cleaver. What happens when the mental being is surgically isolated from the physical being? And then given the option of occupying multiple physical beings? Bodies become interchangeable, disposable. They are renamed “sleeves.”
Immortality, in Morgan’s book, is a labor intensive commodity available at a cost and still not guaranteed. Accidents happen. Backups fail. Viruses corrupt.
… most people could afford to be resleeved at least once, but the point was that unless you were very rich, you had to live out your full span each time and old age, even with antisen treatment, was a wearying business. Second time around was worse because you knew what to expect. Not many had the stamina to do it more than twice. Most people went into voluntary storage after that, with occasional temporary resleevings for family matters, and of course, even those resleevings thinned out as time passed and new generations bustled in without the old ties.
It took a certain kind of person to keep going, to want to keep going, life after life, sleeve after sleeve. You had to start out different, never mind what you might become as the centuries piled up. (54)
What does the digitized, independent mind become? Are sociopaths that “certain kind of person” able to keep going? During Kovacs’ gritty adventures, he barely escapes assassination by a hitman called Kadmin who is adept at moving between sleeves. Kovacs and a police detective interrogate Kadmin in a multi-player virtual reality setting.
We took our seats …, and I stared at Kadmin as we did it. It was the first time I’d seen anything quite like it.
He was the Patchwork Man.
Most virtual systems recreate you from self-images held in the memory, with a commonsense subroutine to prevent your delusions from impinging too much. I generally come out a little taller and thinner in the face than I usually am. In this case, the system seemed to have scrambled a myriad different perceptions from Kadmin’s presumably long list of sleeves. I’d seen it done before, as a technique, but most of us grow rapidly attached to whatever sleeve we’re living in, and that form blanks out previous incarnations. We are, after all, evolved to relate to the physical world.
The man in front of me was different. His frame was that of a Caucasian Nordic, topping mine by nearly thirty centimeters, but the face was at odds. It began African, broad and deep ebony, but the color ended like a mask under the eyes, and the lower half was divided along the line of the nose, pale copper on the left, corpse white on the right. The nose was both fleshy and aquiline and mediated well between the top and bottom halves of the face, but the mouth was a mismatch of left and right sides that left the lips peculiarly twisted. Long straight black hair was combed manelike back from the forehead, shot through on one side with pure white. The hands, immobile on the metal table, were equipped with claws similar to the ones I’d seen on the giant Freak Fighter in Licktown, but the fingers were long and sensitive. He had breasts, impossibly full on a torso so overmuscled. The eyes, set in jet skin, were a startling pale green. Kadmin had freed himself from conventional perceptions of the physical. In an earlier age, he would have been a shaman; here, the centuries of technology had made him more. An electronic demon, a malignant spirit that dwelled in altered carbon and emerged only to possess flesh and wreak havoc. (159-160)
Why is it that alchemical stories always seem to end as cautionary tales? Immortality works for gods like Osiris who can get patched back up without too much drama. When mortals try the bits and pieces never match and the composite creature manifests as a monster instead of a resurrected human. We retell the best stories, the ones that resonate, that teach how to be human.