Of all the stories I’ve put up on my website, I think I’m most proud of this one. It ties together my love of philosophy with my love of zombies into the concept of “philosophical zombies”, or “P-zombies”. The connection is left as an exercise to the reader.
This story was originally published in Pseudopod (find the link to the audio file in my bibliography).
TRYING TO STAY DEAD
Richard S. Crawford
Doctor Bell’s assistant led me into the tiny exam room and gestured at the leather-padded chair in the center. “Are you ready to do this?” she asked, smiling.
I hesitated. I’d been psyching myself up for an animectomy for two months, but now the exam room gave me pause. It reminded me of a dentist’s office: The chair in the center of the room sat benignly beneath a single circular lamp that could be moved and aimed in any direction, while beside it lurked a movable desk with a tiny computer and a single instrument that looked like a dentist’s drill. “I suppose.”
“You’re nervous, I can tell.” The assistant wore a simple pink smock, the kind dental and mental hygienists all over the world wore. Her teeth gleamed an almost unnatural shade of white, and her silky brown hair cascaded lushly over her shoulders. She looked like a model.
And why not? The tiny scar on her left temple and the ever so slightly unfocused look in her eyes told me she’d already had the Snip. She acted happy and well adjusted and was unaware of anything she or I were saying or doing.
“A little,” I replied. “I mean, I’m ready, really, I am. It just seems… weird. It’s so final. You know?”
“It’s not weird at all.” The name tag on her blouse read Sammie. “I had it done three years ago, and I’m sure I was as nervous as you. But it’s so easy. You don’t feel a thing. It looks scary, but all you do is just sit here, the doctor does his job, and snip! You’re done.”
“You make it sound so simple.” I tried a brave smile, but it felt clumsy. I sat down and tried to get comfortable.
“You won’t feel a thing.” Sammie pressed me back gently against the chair, then leaned over me, giving me a generous show of perfect cleavage. She strapped me in, wrapping thick rubber straps around my legs, arms, and forehead. I was completely restrained. “That’s just so you don’t get surprised or jump or anything during the procedure,” she explained. “There could be complications.”
I tried to nod, but I couldn’t because of the band on my forehead. “I’m fine.”
Sammie stood up. “Okay, you’re all ready. Doctor Bell will be with you in a moment.” She left the room, and I watched her as she did so. Her ass was perfect.
I closed my eyes and tried to relax. Maybe this was a stupid idea. Everyone I knew had gotten the Snip, and they were all better people afterwards. Kinder, more thoughtful. They took better care of themselves. They got along better with everyone, and, unburdened with a sense of self, they were always smiling.
But I couldn’t help wondering if the Snip wasn’t just some sort of fancy lobotomy. Everyone who had had it done said that it was painless; on the other hand, how would they know?
There was a polite knock at the door, and it opened before I had a chance to respond. In stepped a gargantuan man, a Leviathan in a white coat, who had to stoop a little just to avoid hitting his head on the lintel. His face was smooth, half obscured by a magnificently long, impeccably trimmed beard. “Hello, Roger, I’m Doctor Bell. How are you?”
I tried to show him I was perfectly at ease by smiling as broadly as I could. “A little bit nervous,” I told him.
“Oh, there’s no cause for that. You won’t feel a thing. I’ve performed this procedure close to three thousand times.”
“None so far this week.”
My heart froze solid in my chest. Doctor Bell must have seen it because he laughed. “No, no fatalities, of course not. In fact, none of my patients have experienced any complications at all.” He sat down on a wheeled stool. “Let’s just get started here.” He turned a knob, and I felt a sharp pressure on my left temple. “All right, are you ready?”
I gasped as the pressure on my temple suddenly grew deeper, then terminated in a loud crunch. “Let me
think about it for a moment more,” Roger says, but even before he finishes the sentence, the procedure is done. He blinks.
“Wow,” he says.
The doctor smiles at him. “There, see? That wasn’t so bad at all.”
Roger looks around the room, a look of wonder on his face. He waves his hand in front of his face, and repeats, “Wow.”
“You’ll get used to it,” Doctor Bell says. He takes a small pad of paper out of his lab coat pocket and scribbles on it. “I’m going to give you some post-surgical care instructions. There shouldn’t be any problems, but we want you to stay fit and healthy, of course. Here.” He tears off the top slip of paper and hands it over.
Roger looks at it. The instructions are to exercise, eat healthy, sleep well, and be happy.
Doctor Bell smiles. “Think you can do that?”
“Of course,” says Roger. “This looks easy.”
“It will be.” Doctor Bell smiles one last time, gives Roger a friendly clap on the shoulder and leaves the room. A moment later, Sammie returns. She unstraps Roger, helps him stand up, then gives him a big, friendly hug. Roger, smiling, returns it.
He turns back to the desk and fills out the last of the paperwork. Then, still smiling, he leaves the office, looking like a man ready to start a new day and a new life.
Roger spends his first few days after his procedure cleaning up his apartment. He has a lot of stuff. Nothing gets thrown away, but it gets all arranged carefully on shelves and in cubbies. He has hundreds of books and compact discs, as well as piles of magazines spread throughout the apartment. Between taking care of his body, cleaning up his apartment, and going to his job, he barely has time to spend with other people.
On Friday night, his telephone rings. He picks it up and answers it, “Hello, this is Roger.”
A woman’s voice squeals at him from the earpiece. “Oh my god Roger! It’s Theresa! You’ve had the Snip, haven’t you? It’s so obvious!”
Roger nods. “It wasn’t so bad. There really wasn’t anything to it at all.”
“Everyone knows that, Roger. You’re so funny. Hey, you want to get together? Go on a date? Tonight? You’ve been attracted to me for a long time but… Well, you know.”
Roger smiles. “Of course I would, Theresa. Nothing would make me happier.”
“Great! I’ll pick you up at your apartment in half an hour, okay? I know you’re probably still getting used to things.”
Therese and Roger say their goodbyes. I hung up the phone and looked at it for a moment, happy to hear from Theresa, then goes to his bedroom to get ready.
Dinner at the restaurant is well prepared, and the movie that Theresa takes Roger to is full of spectacle and music. He doesn’t think about dinner during the movie, and after the movie he doesn’t reflect on it. But that’s okay because everything is good. He looks at Theresa with a smile, and when she looks at him he blushes and looks away.
Theresa smiles. “Would you like to come back to my place?”
I can feel my heart in my throat, and I said, “Sure,” then Rogers shakes his head in momentary confusion.
“Are you okay?” Theresa asks.
“Everything’s fine,” Roger says. “There was just a little…” He pauses, then shrugs. His smile returns.
Theresa shrugs. “That happens sometimes,” she says. “Sometimes after the Snip there’s some… Well, some slipping. It’s nothing to worry about. Come on, let’s go.”
She takes his hand. Roger follows, the smile never leaving his face.
For a couple of weeks, things are great. Roger and Theresa meet just about every night, have dinner and go home to have sex. They talk about the things that couples talk about, the things they are expected to talk about: what they enjoy doing, their future together, and so on. They agree that if they have children, the children will have the Snip done as early as possible.
On a Thursday night two weeks after Roger’s procedure, Roger and Theresa have sex as usual. The smiles on their faces and the noises they make are high pitched and full of laughter. But toward the end Roger pauses because I suddenly felt full of joy. I tried to ignore it. For a moment I did and Roger goes back to the task but I couldn’t keep it up. I withdrew from Theresa and lay down next to her.
“Roger?” Theresa says. She leaned over me and gave me a kiss. “Are you all right?”
I shook my head, trying to shake this thing out of me. “I think…” I wasn’t sure how to say it.
“The Snip didn’t take,” Theresa said.
Roger smiles. “No, it’s fine,” he starts to say, but then I couldn’t finish. She was right. It had been happening every now and then for almost a week now. I had been ignoring it, trying to deny it, but there was no more doing so.
“I’m so sorry,” Theresa says.
I blinked and looked over at her. My heart sank. After the Snip, everything had been so nice. No awareness, no doubts, nothing. But now it had worn off. I felt like a huge weight had been placed onto my chest. I struggled, and tried to bring back the feeling that the Snip had brought me. “Don’t be sorry,” Roger says, but the feeling only lasted for a moment.
Theresa’s eyes did not focus on me perfectly. I knew that behind them there was no consciousness, no animus. No sentience. No experience of qualia or sensation. Nothing but pre-existent behaviors and complex reflexes, a set of programs to give the illusion of personality and happiness. It was truly bliss. Roger tries to bring it back inside himself but I wasn’t able to. Not fully.
“Go back to the doctor,” Theresa said. “He can fix you again. Come and make love to me again.”
I tried, but it was hard, knowing that she was not experiencing any of it, only acting.
It was better for me the first time around, when I didn’t feel it and was unaware that it was happening.
Sammie was just as beautiful as the first time I’d come in but I was too depressed to give her more than a passing glance. She led me into Dr. Bell’s office and gestured at the leather chairs in front of the desk.
“Sit down,” she said. She smiled just as beautifully as the first time I’d seen her, white teeth flashing. And why shouldn’t she? She had nothing at all to worry about. She was incapable of worry. “Doctor Bell will be in in just a moment.” She left the office and closed the door behind her.
I looked around Doctor Bell’s office. Everything here was in perfect order. Texts by Yablo, Chalmers, Blackwell, Nagel, and Kripke lined the bookshelves: all pioneers in the field of animectomological studies who had paved the way for further philosophical work and for the Snip itself.
Doctor Bell opened the door and stepped into the room. “Well, hello, Roger. How are you?”
“Pretty miserable, Doctor. The Snip didn’t take. I want to schedule another one.”
Sighing, Doctor Bell sat down behind his desk. He shook his head. “I’m afraid that’s not possible,” he said. “Spontaneous reversal of the Snip isn’t unknown. We’re still not sure how it happens; an ontological mutation to the essential phenomenological construct, we think, which causes a spontaneous reintegration of the internal experience of self. Some sort of Cartesian impairment, perhaps.”
“Can you fix it?”
“I’m afraid not. Phenomenological deconstructs hindered by ontological deformations are notoriously difficult to treat. The best experimental philosophers have struggled with the problem, but all attempts to establish a full physiological denial of the self experience have failed. No matter what we do, the Self always returns.”
I hadn’t understood a single word of what he said. “What?”
Doctor Bell smiled condescendingly. “In brief, no. Every once in a great while, the Snip restores itself spontaneously, and in those cases only partially, but I wouldn’t count on that.”
I sank down into my chair.
“Don’t worry. Many people have gone on to live full and complete lives, despite being burdened with an awareness of Self. I can recommend a series of exercises and techniques to help you overcome it. With time and patience you may find that you can experience brief periods of…”
“No,” I said. “I’m not interested. If I can’t have the real thing, I don’t want it at all.”
“Very well,” Doctor Bell said, looking directly at me. “Then is there anything else I can do for you?”
I shook my head. Every part of my body felt heavy, as if made of stone. Still, I forced myself to stand up. “Thanks for everything,” I said. He waved at me, and I left.
I tried to get together with Theresa once more because it seemed like her presence helped me just a bit to recover the senselessness that I’d felt just after the Snip, but I couldn’t. She was sweet, but there was just something there that she and I couldn’t be part of together. I broke things off with her and she cried, but felt no sadness. She acted sad, with tears and a runny nose, but inside, I knew, there was nothing at all. I could, at least, console myself with that knowledge, even if it would never be true for me.
She was a beautiful woman. I knew it wouldn’t take long for another Snipped man to find her. And even if none ever did, she would never be unhappy.
I let my own life fall to pieces. Overpowered by my sense of self, I gave up on eating well, on exercising, on sleeping. I gained back the weight I had lost. Blemishes reappeared on my face. I tried to keep up with my job but I kept getting distracted by things I felt, things I became aware of, such as my own thoughts and feelings. After awhile I just gave up. Everyone else in the office had had the Snip and they all seemed so happy. None of them could share my burden.
I felt nauseous.
Finally I could take it no more. I went to the edge of town on a Wednesday night, to where the Emperor Norton Bridge connected San Augustin with the other side of the bay. I drove halfway across the bridge, then got out of my car and stood at the edge, leaning over the railing and looking down at the water.
“Hey there,” said a voice to my right.
I turned. A young woman, hair red like fire and wearing a simple white dress, stood on the edge of the bridge, just a few feet to my right. Her bare toes dangled precariously but she seemed to maintain her balance with no effort. Her left temple was smooth and unscarred, and she looked directly at me.
“Are you going to jump?” she asked.
“That’s the plan.”
I sighed. How could I possibly explain myself? “It’s a long story.”
She peered at me, her eyes boring directly into mine. “The Snip didn’t take, did it?”
“No, it didn’t.”
“And so you’re here about to kill yourself?”
“It’s the agony of being,” I blurted out, unable to contain myself. “I just wanted to be like everyone else. I wanted to be able to not care, to just ignore everything and not worry about anything.”
“Oh,” she said. “Well, that’s perfectly reasonable.”
“Yeah. I’ve had the taste of emptiness, of the state of nonbeing, while still being here. I can’t take this constant awareness of myself, especially knowing that everyone else around me is unburdened with it.” I hadn’t realized it, but my voice was actually getting louder as I spoke. I took a breath to calm myself.
For a moment, the two of us stood in perfect silence, letting the wind blow over us.
“Wow,” she breathed at last. “What magnificent bullshit.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Oh. Nothing. I mean, I’ve heard some real lame excuses to commit suicide before, but that one was one of the worst. You should have thrown in an unrequited love, a crushing debt, or at least a dead puppy. Agony of being?” She scoffed. “Pathetic.”
“Well, what about you? What’s your excuse?”
“For killing yourself.”
“Then why are you here?”
She smiled. “I’m just here to enjoy the night air. Isn’t it wonderful?”
“Just go about your business, all right? Pretend I’m not here.”
Fuck her, I thought. I stepped over the railing and looked out over the ocean. The water down there was awfully choppy, and looked very cold. Of all bridges in California, the Emperor Norton Bridge had the lowest suicide survival rate. And the city had done nothing about it, aside from plastering a few fliers with the number of a local suicide hotline.
The woman yawned loudly. “You going to take all night?”
“Fuck you,” I said. I said it to the woman on the bridge. I said it to the bridge. I said it to the ocean, to the cities on either side of the bridge. I said it to the world, to God, to Doctor Bell, to Theresa and Sammie, to mutagenic phenomenologies. I said it to my brain. I said it to a universe which wouldn’t allow me to let go of myself and which made me hang on to a consciousness that I never asked for and never wanted.
“Fuck you,” I repeated. Then I said it again, just for good measure. “Fuck you.”
She stared. “Please don’t do it,” she said.
Annoyed, I let go of the railing and took a step out over the open water. Then, before I could have a chance to back out, I took another, and then I was falling. I heard the girl screaming behind me.
I’m not sure what I expected. The wind rushed past my ears and onto my face. The way my hair flew around myself and the freshness of the salty air were exhilirating.
I closed my eyes and savored the moment. Then opened my eyes and looked down.
The water rushed up to me with a malignant solidity I would never have been able to foresee. My heart leaped in my chest. “This was the wrong idea,”
you say aloud and then your body slams into the water and you stop
But it’s not the end. You survive, but just barely. Your internal organs are damaged. Your hip is broken and refuses to heal. You live in a chair.
Theresa comes to visit you from time to time, but never stays for long. She is sympathetic to your situation, but finds you too self-involved, and eventually stops showing up altogether.
The girl from the bridge also comes to visit you sometimes as well. She, too, is sympathetic, but she finds you too distant.
In the end, it’s just you. And despite the constant pain, you are almost happy.