The Long Slide

Decidedly it will never have been given to me to finish anything, except perhaps breathing. One must not be greedy. (Malone Dies, Samuel Beckett)

Too many people are opting out. It was always expected that there would be some, about a million every Orbit, give or take. These, it was thought, would be at the extremes. Everlasting life solves many problems, but there are still people who aren’t happy, who would prefer not to be than to be. This natural attrition was accounted for from the beginning, once the ideal population number had been identified. That’s why we have the Creation Programme. Every time a person decides to stop, we make someone else, randomising small parts of the genetic code to ensure diversity and strengthen the common resistance. Not that we see diseases much anymore. We raise the new Creations by rota. Most of us have to bring one up about once in 150 Orbits, which is a relatively small burden. 

It’s an easy, plentiful life. We all had the Renovator implanted during the Changeover, and it’s fool proof. It protects us, rejuvenates us, purifies us. Our ages are irrelevant – we mark Creation dates for the first century, but ideas of seniority are nearly non-existent. The Renovator keeps our bodies and minds young. Originally, it was designed with 24 set as the ideal age, but that was later lowered to 20 for reasons of genital intercourse and physical stamina. There’s talk of bringing it down further.

The world’s population is fixed at 1.42 billion. We have enough food, enough to drink and enough to do. The Renovator maintains itself in perpetuity, and therefore us – there’s no repair work required. 

But we can switch it off. When the contracts were drawn up, it was considered a necessary condition that people should be free to opt out at any point. For some, the idea of eternity, even a youthful, free eternity, was too much. So in return for signing away reproductive rights, it was agreed that everyone would maintain the right to choose if, and if so, when, to bring things to a close. Those contracts are the absolute backbone of our system, an inviolable constitution. 

But it’s not as simple as flicking a switch. We don’t want people turning off on impulse; after all, we all still have the occasional bad day. That’s why we installed the Whim Filter. Now, if people want to stop, they have to go through the normal procedure at the Renovator Center, where they provide various identity authentications, long-logged memories and the like, before filling in a form that sets things in motion. The Whim Filter then enforces a delay. If someone decides to switch off on a Dayfive, the filter makes sure that their Renovator keeps running until a Daytwentyfive. If things change during this time, then the decision is retrievable and reversible. The Whim Filter saves approximately one in six of those who elect to finish, or at least, that was the average.  

Of course, this process entails some unpleasantness, especially because, once the Renovator is finally switched off, it can take up to seven days for a body to shut down – and there is no going back once the Renovator has been switched off. It’s not an easy thing, opting out, though we have Pleasure Homes especially designed for people to spend their final days.

More and more people are doing it. Today is Daytwentyeight of Lunefour. Today, so far, there have been 68,383 Renovators turned off, and a further 85,252 people registering to stop at their local Renovator Center. It’s been the pattern for the last couple of Lunes – everyday more people register, everyday more people stop. The Creation Programme is keeping up, for now, but already it is anticipated that if current trends continue, we’ll have people raising multiple Creations before long, and the Pleasure Homes are already filling up. This has been unthinkable since the Changeover.  

We’re collating data at the moment in order to understand and remedy the problem. There’s a box on the opt-out form which asks its user to give a reason or reasons for their decision. Many leave it blank, but those who have filled it in say some interesting things. We use a concordance approach to process the information. So everyone’s words are logged in the system, and then we read the collective by looking at those which occur most frequently. Since the uplift in registrations, the most commonly used word (excluding conjunctions, articles, personal pronouns and the most common verbs) has been ‘despair’ (in 8.32% of completed forms), followed by ‘feel’ (8.18%), ‘over’ (8.12%), ‘want’ (8.07%), ‘bored’ (8.03%) and ‘tired’ (8.01%). This is about what we observe normally by way of proportions, but there are some interesting differences. The incidence of ‘despair’ has risen markedly from the mean: almost half a percentage point. It’s unprecedented. 

And then, less frequently but more worryingly, we have words appearing in the forms which have hardly been cited since the first fifty Orbits after the Changeover. ‘Future’ (1.53%), ‘children’ (1.00%) and ‘sex’ (0.94%) are remarkable, certainly, but there’s an even greater cause for concern. Taboo words are cropping up, words that we thought had been forgotten: ‘love’ (0.80%), ‘death’ (0.78%), die (0.77%). We wouldn’t believe it, but the data has been checked and checked again. No-one has been able to die since the word was abolished during the Changeover. It’s a linguistic and technical impossibility. And it had been assumed that ‘love’ had gone the way of ‘God’. 

When the Changeover happened, it was thought necessary to do away with much pre-existing information about how human societies had formed and developed.  There are archives, certainly, and planning documentation that shows how the Changeover came to be. There are even, it is said, various visual and written records of the time immediately before and after: the Audition and Selection procedure, and then that troubled period during which the population was progressing towards its ideal size. Many of the Originals have switched off, but there are enough of us left to realise how necessary it was to erase or remove those records. It would be truer, now that all these centuries have passed, to say that the process of the Changeover has been forgotten. The information is not suppressed as such, but unheard of. 

Even so, those taboo words, not all of them by any means written by Originals, seem to indicate that something has survived from that time. Our work on genetic development has long been leading us to the suspicion that there are things that cannot be eradicated merely by removing the relevant section of the code. Our genes allowed us to participate in the Changeover when others couldn’t, but it seems increasingly likely that they carry other kinds of information with them. Perhaps it is the same with words. Perhaps we can’t shake it off, this history.  

There’s another thought. Philosophers, of whom there are so many these days, have speculated that there might be a limit, a quantity of time beyond which people simply cannot continue. We used to dismiss such thinking as a remnant of minds that were conditioned prior to the Changeover; minds infected by outdated notions of mortality. And indeed, the longer time goes on, the less currency that argument has carried in the philosophical circles which meet every Lune. Now though, there are new suspicions, and the most radical of those circles are suggesting mandatory limits of something like nine centuries, although they know it would go against our very foundations. The contract specifies its eternity, and the freedom that underlines it is essential to everything we hold dear. Still though, the thought nags that things would be better if there was a refreshment from time to time.

We’re going to develop a plan to tackle the problem. There will be rewards for continued existence, incentives for carrying on. This might be the best thing that’s ever happened to us. It could completely revitalise us. It is imperative we do something. Because with every day that goes by, and every person who decides to opt out, we hear oblivion’s siren song getting louder and louder, more and more beautiful. We have to make it stop.