Thursday, August 30, 2012

Omnipotence is a Frightening Thing When You Think About It Long Enough

I've been re-reading Stephen King's collection of short stories published as Skeleton Crew recently.

Namely because, a few months back, when I was attempting all sorts of various surface street routes to work in search of the best, fastest, and/or most interesting way to travel without getting on the highway, I was reminded of Mrs. Todd's Shortcut - a story included in the Skeleton Crew collection.

I'm pleased to report the stories I've read thus far have, generally, stood the test of time and rarely date themselves.

But that report is not why I'm here. No, no.

A few nights ago, I re-read Word Processor of the Gods and, frankly, I'm troubled by it.

Just in case you've never read it and aren't interested on clicking through to the wiki to read about it, I will spoil the ending for you (sue me, People, it was published in 1985. You've had plenty of time!) by telling you it's a story of a man disenchanted with his life - the selfish, greedy, awful wife he chose, the slacker, insolent son they spawned - and is jealous of the family - wife and son - his louse of a drunken, abusive brother had and subsequently killed while driving drunk. The protagonist's nephew, Jon, before he died, was building a birthday present for his uncle...a word processor...a word processor that would DO the things typed after "INSERT" or "DELETE" was pressed. The protagonist, upon figuring this out, deletes his current wife and son and, just before the machine goes up in smoke, resurrects his brother's family and inserts them into his own life as his own wife and son.

We're going to assume they all lived happily ever after sans abusive brother, tyrannical, selfish wife, and useless, no-good son.

On the surface, this is a magnificent tale of a nice, seemingly genuinely good guy getting his just desserts...right?

On the surface, I really like this story. In fact, there have been times where I've wished, for the benefit of another, that a machine like this actually existed. Because, honestly, haven't we all known someone (or been that someone) whose life is not what it should be? Whose life is, unhappy, somehow all wrong because of the one decidedly bad choice they made that set the wheels in motion to steamroll a person underneath a series of unfortunate events?

Now, let's set aside the fact that, if technology of this ilk existed, we'd all be in dire straits once the government got their sticky, devious, piggy little fingers on it. Let's set aside the fact that, in essence, the movie The Matrix is based, in part, on this same premise of inserting and deleting people at will. Let's set aside the fact that this could never work if there were multiple machines. Can you imagine the cluster-fuckery if everyone had the ability to muck about in other people's lives with just a few keystrokes?

Think about it.

So, you know, I'm asking you to set all that aside.

What bothers me...what really really really really bothers me about the premise of this, while the protagonist gets his way - his coveted wife and son - no consideration is given to what the wife and son might have wanted.

Think about it.

The protagonist in the story, he seems like a good guy, decides he wishes the wife and son of his brother should be his and, with his new found power, makes it so. But what if said wife and son think said protagonist is some creepy potential pedophile and want nothing to do with him? What if his nephew hopes, beyond all hope, that both brothers will be a jerk, the other a creep? What if, one day, brother's wife wakes up after swallowing the red pill (or was it the blue one? I forget now) and discovers she's been surreptitiously inserted into a life she did not choose but can't opt out of?

Think about it.

Granted, this was a short story, an undeveloped story. A story, in my opinion that, on the surface, was fascinating and awesome and, potentially a plot that could have been thickened with corn starch for a meaty, delicious stew.

It still comes down to this...imagine that you, YES YOU, wake up one day and discover the person you're sleeping next to isn't the person you chose to marry. You discover all the memories you have aren't real. You discover the memories you should, could, would have had are gone - the good and the bad.

It goes beyond just one person's life though. There is a rippling effect...other family members, teachers, co-workers, grocery store checkout clerks, doctors, mechanics...their memories are all altered too. And the scope of that...well...Mind. Blown.

Additionally, what happens to the deleted people? Do they just cease to exist? Do they each deserve that? Hell! I was a sullen, angry teenager. Weren't most of us?

And the more I obsess about the concept, the worse I feel about the entire premise.

It appears to me to be one of those, "well, it seemed like a good idea at the time" ideas that ends up with people in jail...or dead.

Life is so messy and complicated and, at times, terrifying and difficult. We all occasionally feel horribly stuck and lost, heartsick and filled with regret. But I've long held the belief (I had to just to get by) that there is absolutely nothing we cannot get ourselves out of once we're in it...even if we're in the thick of it. It may require losing something significant - most often, Pride - but there are options, hard options available always. Bankruptcy, divorce, minimum wage fast food slinging, rehab, shelters, therapy, moving back in with the folks, et al.


What should not be an option is omnipotent power - granted to our neighbors, our friends, our enemies - to make it all easy...time travel, memory augmentation. Aren't those akin to murder and/or suicide? Acts we've got laws against to protect the innocent?

The consequences are too huge to consider even while I sit here considering them.

And yes, I probably let my imagination run away with me over a short story written 3 decades ago. Still...when King wrote this there was no GPS, no smart phones, no internet. There was no such thing as Mars Curiosity or a 24-hour news cycle. Jeebus! When he wrote this CDs and DVDs didn't exist let alone mp3s, DVRs, or high definition television. He may have still had a rotary phone...something kids today wouldn't even be able to identify.

Just how far away are we from omnipotent power?

So that's why I'm troubled. In an age where there is an app for that...a pill for far away are we from having the ability, from our phones, to DELETE and INSERT whatever we'd like for ourselves?


I need a drink.

Mind, officially, blown.

Now I truly understand why Stephen King is classified a horror writer.


Gaelyn said...


I deleted myself.

Used to read King, but he started giving me the real creeps.

TangledLou said...

If I deleted people then I would have to have some sort of system restore disk to insert when I realized I'd deleted the wrong ones. What am I talking about? If such a device existed, I would be instantly deleted from several different locations.

Also? It's a Stephen King short story, so you should know that how the woman feels about it is irrelevant. Ha! Bless his heart, I love him, but he's a bit of a misogynist.

I remember reading this story ages ago and now I'll have to revisit it. Probably in daylight so I don't have nightmares.

You crack me up, Jane. I love you.

Unknown said...

I could say so many things, Jane, but the thing that really springs to mind is that this is how I know you're MY people. Do you know there are people out there who stuff stuff...passively, almost as if they're dead, or half-asleep. They are, I think, sort of mounted and ridden by entertainment. Some of us, we strange few, we grab that same entertainment and lock it in a dark cell. We question it for hours while it sweats copiously and tries to come up with answers. We waterboard it until it talks. Then we blog about that. This is why I like you so very much. :)

nakedjen said...

I remember reading this story very long ago and it was actually right around the time of my own brain surgery when they told me that the part of my own brain that they were removing was going to ERASE everything I ever knew about myself and basically I was going to REBOOT and have to start all over.


Meaning, I wouldn't even know I had read that story. However, I also wouldn't know who I was.

You know what I said to that brain surgeon?

Bring it.

You know why?

Well, of course I wanted to live. But also because I decided it was a real gift to just start my whole life all over again and really and truly ERASE the bad.

The thing is our brains are not what even brain surgeons believe them to be (or Stephen King) and we truly live our lives on a cellular level, not just with grey matter.

This is far more than you needed to know, I'm certain. However, what you've gotten me contemplating here is the film, ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, which keeps intriguing me because, well, specific mind erasure.

I'm also going to suggest that you go see ROBOT AND FRANK when you get the chance (even if you just rent it eventually on Netflix or something) because, well, it will add to your thoughts.

I love you for this and so much more! xo

Margi said...

Nakedjen brought up Eternal Sunshine ... excellent film for just this kind of mind blowing stuff.

Everything King writes is a little like this. It makes me think for a long time after I've walked away from the book.

If you haven't yet, read 11/22/63. It's not a short story, it's almost 1,000 pages of Kingistic writing. But it does something similar with time and so on. My book club is meeting about it this week.

Unknown said...

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