Well, not that anyone else is really going to care, but I’m proud of something I’ve figured out recently. Took me ten years to do it.

There’s this story by the sci-fi writer Greg Egan called “The Caress” that I read in one of the Year’s Best Science Fiction collections edited by Gardner Dozois. I loved it — I was fascinated by it — but I didn’t get it. I even gave it to a playwriting teacher to read. He said, “What does this mean?” I told him I didn’t know. “What’s it about?” — He asked me that after he read it.


The story’s set in the future in an immense metropolitan area. A cop, someone who had hormone injections to become a cop since he was eleven, who had to go on drugs every time he went on shift just to do his job, finds a murdered woman and a barely living chimera — a half-human, half-cougar genetic experiment that looks like a sphinx — in a house. He saves the chimera three times over the course of the next few days. The cop and the chimera are kidnapped by the son of a famous philanthropist and made to recreate an obscure surrealist painting called “The Caress.” After they recreate the painting, the son of the philanthopist lets the cop go. The cop tries to figure out what’s going on, and doesn’t really. The end.

Selected details:

The police use something like a lie-detector machine hooked up to the phones to track incoming calls about publicized crimes. The machine assigns each call a validity score and averages out the calls to come up with the most valid scenarios — accusations, confessions, trivial information, etc.

The son of the philanthropist is actually the philanthropist; the philanthropist had himself cloned and has had all of his brain tissue injected into the kid. The kid believes himself to be the philanthropist as well.

The chimera rescued by the cop wasn’t the only one. A number of chimerae, engineered by different scientists at the behest of the philanthropist, were put in the same situation as that of the one the cop found. The others weren’t viable in the first place, died before the other cops found them, or didn’t have the same kind of relationship after being found and so were killed off by the philanthropist.

The philanthropist had the cop surgically altered to resemble the man in the painting.

Ten years. Closer to twelve. What the hell is the damn story about?

After Greg Egan wrote “The Caress,” he wrote a lot of other stuff. I finished Schild’s Ladder last week (I’d read others of his books years ago).

Greg Egan has some ideas that run through most of his work:

Every time something either does or does not happen, it both does and does not happen.

Wouldn’t it be nice if people’s brains were replaced with a crystal matrix? Or computer chips? So they could a) be immortal, and b) back up their selves in case of accident and really be immortal. On the other hand, once people aren’t connected to hormones and neurons and things, it’s possible for them to become whatever and whoever they want to be — even if it isn’t anything related to who they are now, and possibly no way to ensure that the old you would like the new you or be able to force the new you to change back.

The philanthropist believes in personal immortality and tried to give it to himself with biology, like a precursor to the crystal matrices. Side note: in another of his books, after the main character succeeds in uploading his personality to a computer, he kills himself — his mortal body is extraneous.

The police phone system, the multiple chimerae that were engineered — these are precursors to the tricks that the charaters in later books can do with alternate universes. In Schild’s Ladder, some of the characters use it to come up with a solution to the apocolypse. It only half-works, but there you go. It didn’t matter that in innumerable alternates they failed; becuase of the setup, because one of the alternates succeeded, they all did. There’s more explanation in the story I won’t go into, and hell if maybe I didn’t understand what was going on in the first place.

The cop’s use of drugs and hormone therapy, the genetic engineering of the chimera, and other details in the story point toward escaping the natural self in order to accomplish some purpose. The cop has chosen to become a cop; he can’t stop now, or he’ll die from withdrawal, and he’s not physically suited to anything else.

So that all made sense now — it’s like the story is the hint of what Greg Egan’s going to be working on for at least the next decade or so.

The recreation of a surrealist painting, the emotions and the physical reality of it, makes the universe different than it was without that recreation. What’s the point? Well, without the other stuff in the way to confuse me, it was easy: it’s art. What does art do? What does art ever do? Is art able to do what it does whether or not you understand it? I think the philanthropist was trying to make the world into the place that, in the later books, it would become. In another of his books, Quarantine, aliens have shut off the solar system from the rest of the universe, because the observations that humans were making were destroying entire cultures that depended on existing on all possible states (that second idea I gave above) at once, instead of the either/or that humans perceive. By recreatoing the painting using the techniques he did, the philanthropist was found out. The idea was found out. People said, “Can’t I live forever, too?” And other things.

Anyway, it all makes sense to me now. And having picked apart what went into the story finally, I can still say I like it.

–About Greg Egan, I guess I’d say he’s the heir of Arthur C. Clark more than anybody else.

Ten years. Maybe twelve. Watch me in another decade, I’ll have world peace going on. Yah.

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