Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The Dream-Drifters


Up until the year 2212, intergalactic travel was thought to be impossible due to the light-speed barrier and the immensity of space. Year after year, ingenious theories of every description were been floated to get around this obstacle, but to no avail.

But in the year 2212, a mnemonics major by the name of Fibert Lyle took the unorthodox approach of saying that the answer lay, not in the problem, but in question. The physical constraints were admittedly insurmountable, but why pose the problem in physical terms?

Mnemonics was the science of directed memory. Way back in the 20C, neurosurgeons had already discovered that cortical stimulation would trigger memories. Not just fuzzy images, but memories so vivid and lifelike that they seemed to recreate the original experience.

For a time, no one pursued this discovery until the entertainment industry took an interest in the recreational possibilities of directed memory—of being able to catalogue all one’s memories, then pull up the most pleasant memories for repeated, interactive viewing. This became quite addictive. Just as VR programs edged out recreational drugs, commercial mnemonics edged out VR programs as the diversion of choice.

One branch of mnemonics was morphetics. This was the science of recovered dream engrams. Just as mnemonics could recover real memories, morphetics could recover forgotten dreams.

Besides its recreational value, it was also a useful tool in penology. Instead of sentencing a convict to prison time, you could sentence him to relive his worst nightmares. Not only was this far more cost effective than imprisonment, but had a definite deterrent value.

Filbert’s study of mnemonics and morphetics led him to investigate the mind/body problem. And this, in turn, led him to investigate medieval mysticism.

In a flash of inspiration, as he was flossing his teeth one morning, it occurred to him that if we couldn’t change the nature of space, we could change the nature of the astronaut.

The mystics often spoke of raptures and astral travel. What if this was more than a figure of speech? What if it was really possible, through the mental discipline of the contemplative life, to detach the mind from the body and project the mind? The mind, unlike the body, was essentially illocal and could “go” anywhere.

Another aspect of parapsychology was telekinesis. I don’t mean the spoon-bending circus tricks. No, what if it was possible for the discarnate soul to reconstitute a body from the raw materials available on another planet?


Filbert combined these revolutionary insights in his doctoral dissertation. It was, by al accounts, a brilliant, ground-breaking thesis.

But his examiners were less than thrilled. One went so far as to call it “metaphysical.”

Not only did he flunk out of the program, but he was blacklisted by the scientific community as a dangerous quack. As a result, Filbert drank himself to death.

Once Filbert was safely dead, there was a renewed interest in his work. Other scientists “independently” came to the same conclusions, but studiously avoided naughty words like “mysticism” and the “soul.”


Astral travel was not without its dangers and impediments. The discarnate soul needed to know where to go. This required a star chart to supply the coordinates. And there were limitations on the mapping of space, for only a fraction of space was visible from our solar system.

But once the discarnate soul reached the first leg of the journey, it could hopscotch from one celestial body to another.

Yet this was not without its perils as well, for without an Ariadne’s thread to retrace its steps, the soul could easily become disoriented and lose its way in the labyrinth of outer space.

In addition, there was a point beyond which the soulless body could not be reanimated. Technically, when the soul left the body, the body was clinically dead. It could be sustained indefinitely on life-support, and the threshold for reanimation had been extended through rigorous physical and psychological conditioning, but it was only within that narrow widow of opportunity that the soul could leave and rejoin the body.

Yet another hazard was the danger of telekinetic revisionism. It was tempting for a mindbender to use his psychic powers to literally reshape parts of his life he was unhappy about. Although a mindbender could not actually go back in time, he could simulate time travel in order to rectify lost opportunities. Yet in altering his surroundings, he would change the world in which he and others lived.

For this reason, candidates for astral travel were rigorously screened and monitored. And there were severe penalties for abusing their powers.

Yet, despite the many dangers, research continued, for nothing was ever allowed to impede the stately progress of science.


John Fisher was a mindbender, assigned to the Astronautica. And yet, like a mathematician who can do quantum geometry in his head, but is helpless to balance a checkbook, Fisher’s psychological insight did nothing to improve his social life. As with so many talented and ambitious men, he was a social misfit, alienated from his father, now deceased, his three wives, now divorced, and his kids from each marriage. Work was an escape from souring social relations, and escapism further curled his already sour social life.

If only he could do it all over again. That’s a question we all ask ourselves. But unlike the rest of us, creaking under the crushing weight of vain regrets, there was a sense in which a mindbender could do it all over again. Could succumb to temptation. If not on earth, for the authorities would detect any psychic contamination, then on another planet. It need not be habitable. For he could make it habitable. Parts of it, at least—like The Little Prince come to life.

To reinvent his past life he’d have to make an irreversible break with life on earth, leaving his body forever behind, along with his everyone he ever knew. But, from his standpoint, he had nothing to lose. Nothing, really, to leave behind but mistakes and heartaches.


And so he terraformed his boyhood home from the raw materials of a minor, unprepossessing planet on the outer fringes of Andromeda.

As a boy he always loved living there, on the lake, with the woods and the mountains. But when he was a teenager, his dad moved the family to the big city, which he always hated.

Fisher decided to synthesize a family reunion. He would synthesize his father, and have the kind of filial relationship he never had with his real dad. He would synthesize his beloved mother and grandmother. When the family moved, they left grandmother behind.
He would synthesize “Justin,” the brother he always wanted as a kid, but never had. He would synthetic Cora, the girl next door, his first crush, his first love, the girl he should have married all along. He would synthesize Austin, his best friend from high school. They had drifted apart after graduation.

True, they would not be real people, but synthetic, physical facsimiles, programmed with his memories. But they were better than real. Whatever was good, he would preserve; whatever was bad, he could improve.

He would bring them together under one roof, in his dream home. He had once been inside a mausoleum with an artificial stream and waterfall running down the middle, with flowers and songbirds, stained glass and fan-vaulting. He always wanted a home like that.

He was, in fact, a seminary dropout. He originally intended to study theology, but decided that he didn’t have the bedside manner for the job. So he went into science instead—his other love. And as time went on he adopted the celebrity lifestyle of a famous astronaut. Yet he had the troubled conscience of a backslider, torn in two.


So there he was, on day, under the clear sunny skies of his artificial world, driving an E-type Jaguar roadster cross-country to his mother’s home to pick her up. After dropping her off at the new house, he drove over to his grandmother’s house. She was gardening in the backyard, as she always did.

One by one he moved them into his dream home on the lake. He went hunting and camping with Austin and Justin, sail boating with his dad. He made a life with Cora. His grandmother continued to garden. There were outdoor barbecues whenever the weather permitted, which was often since the weather was whatever he wanted it to be. For the first time in his life he was free to pursue a number of fun hobbies.

It was, to be sure, a rather confining existence. His synthetic friends and family only knew what he knew, so he was really talking to himself. They never said anything new or unexpected.

He read books, but only what he remembered; listened to music, but only what he remembered; saw movies, but only what he remembered.

But while it was rather routine, it was a better routine than his old life. Predictable, no doubt, but predictably agreeable rather than predictably disagreeable.

Things fell into a natural groove. He lost track of time. There were no clocks or calendars, schedules or deadlines. Just the rhythms of nature.

Would he want to be doing this a hundred years from now? Maybe not, but he’d burn that bridge when he came to it. Everyone got bored sooner or later. But some boredoms were better than others.


Yet something else was beginning to eat away at him. Really, it was always gnawing on the inside. But he had been able to suppress it in his dream world come true.

Theoretically, the synthetic body was immortal. Of course, that proposition had never been put to the test. Forever is a long time, as they say. Yet to all appearances, the synthetic body was ageless.

But back on earth, his old friends and family members were far from ageless. In his effort to recapture lost opportunities, he was losing real opportunities. Even if he were still around several centuries from now, they would be gone beyond recall.

And another nagging thought was tapping him on the shoulder. For while he might be able to cheat the grave, he would not be able to cheat the Day of Judgment. Would God ever forgive him if he abandoned his family for good? If he made no good faith effort to be reconciled with his kids?

Yes, he still believed in God. As a seminarian, the more he tried to think about God, the more he doubted God. But as a backslider, the more he put God out of his mind, the more the thought of snuck in through the back door, pressing him on every side. He was never so mindful of God as when he was leading a godless life. The only effect of pushing God to the far corners of his brain was to flatten it thin like a piece of pizza dough so that it spread around, coating every bare surface.


But what could he do? He wasn’t at all sure he could find his way back to terra firma. And even if he did, what then? In principle, he could synthesize a new body, but that was strictly forbidden. The authorities felt that a class of immortals among mortals would be a recipe for social unrest. Every citizen would demand the same privilege. But not everyone could be a mindbender. You had to have a psychic predisposition. Yet the fear of death was such that every citizen would demand to be tested and trained, just in case. A pitchfork insurrection would result.

For this reason, the incorruptible character of the synthetic body was highly classified. Mindbenders would only permitted to synthesize a body back on earth for training purposes, after which the body was immediately cremated. Mindbenders who broke the rules were ruthlessly hunted down.


But there was one last option. If a man died by drowning or some other cause which left the brain and body intact, a discarnate soul could take possession of the corpse before necrosis set in.

Even so, would his disaffected family forgive him for deserting them these many months and years? Maybe not. But he had to try. He had a duty to perform. He had to seek them out, one-by-one. And so he dematerialized, leaving his synthetic paradise behind.

After he as gone, his adaptive, synthetic family and friends continued their synthetic existence without him, hunting and fishing and weeding the garden.


In the year 2273, another mindbender happened upon the very same planet. As you can well imagine, this was a sensational discovery. Here, at last, was hard, incontrovertible evidence of extra-terrestrial life. Clearly some alien species had studied the earth and then replicated its culture and horticulture in a laboratory experiment.

The only question was, were they friendly or hostile? Was this a prelude to first contact or invasion?

Theories multiplied. Whole histories and competing histories were written about this alien race. Its arts and sciences were meticulously reconstructed from clues and inferences. Every Ivy League university had its own endowed chair of Ufology. Law schools taught courses in exobiological rights.

Political parties took hawkish or dovish sides. Several millennial cults were founded, some of a survivalist mindset, others eager to greet the alien saviors. The entire global economy and educational establishment was redirected to prepare, for better or worse, for the arrival of the little green men. News coverage was saturated with stories of UFOs, contactees, and abductees.


There was one man who knew the truth, but unfortunately, he had died in obscurity several years before, surrounded by a few old friends and family members, taking his secret with him to the grave.

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