This section gathers together some stories that I’ve placed online. Links to many other stories can be found here.
“You’ll never get tenure. You don’t have the abs.”
Emma waited for Jacob’s mask of bemusement to give way to the hint of wounded pride that she’d been aiming for. They both knew that she was speaking the truth. Jacob was nimble enough — even graceful at times — but he just didn’t put in the hours in the gym. No one would vote to grant permanent immunity to a dancer with a pudgy, childlike belly and toneless upper arms.
“It’s not that we didn’t have fun,” she continued, glancing across Briggs Field, wondering if any of her followers had come to witness the break-up in person. “But we’re headed for different fates, and it’s better to acknowledge that now than spend years together fooling ourselves that it could ever work out in the end.”
She stepped forward, then reached down and took his hand. “Do you think you can walk?” Her grip was firm, and her skin was cool and dry. She was completely unafraid; she might have been a good Samaritan in a public street helping an old man to his feet after a fall — not an intruder helping a threat to national security break out of therapeutic detention, at the risk of being shot on sight.
“I’m not even sure I can stand.” Robert steeled himself; maybe this woman was a trained assassin, but it would be too much to presume that if he cried out in pain and brought guards rushing in, she could still extricate him without raising a sweat. “You haven’t answered my question.”
“My name’s Helen.” She smiled and hoisted him to his feet, looking at once like a compassionate child pulling open the jaws of a hunter’s cruel trap, and a very powerful, very intelligent carnivore contemplating its own strength. “I’ve come to change everything.”
Robert said, “Oh, good.”
I was walking north along George Street towards Town Hall railway station, pondering the ways I might solve the tricky third question of my linear algebra assignment, when I encountered a small crowd blocking the footpath. I didn’t give much thought to the reason they were standing there; I’d just passed a busy restaurant, and I often saw groups of people gathered outside. But once I’d started to make my way around them, moving into an alley rather than stepping out into the traffic, it became apparent that they were not just diners from a farewell lunch for a retiring colleague, putting off their return to the office for as long as possible. I could see for myself exactly what was holding their attention.
Twenty metres down the alley, a man was lying on his back on the ground, shielding his bloodied face with his hands, while two men stood over him, relentlessly swinging narrow sticks of some kind.
Nobody wants to spend eternity alone.
(“Intimacy,” I once told Sian, after we’d made love, “is the only cure for solipsism.”
She laughed and said, “Don’t get too ambitious, Michael. So far, it hasn’t even cured me of masturbation.”)
True solipsism, though, was never my problem. From the very first time I considered the question, I accepted that there could be no way of proving the reality of an external world, let alone the existence of other minds — but I also accepted that taking both on faith was the only practical way of dealing with everyday life.
The question which obsessed me was this: Assuming that other people existed, how did they apprehend that existence? How did they experience being? Could I ever truly understand what consciousness was like for another person — any more than I could for an ape, or a cat, or an insect?
If not, I was alone.
I desperately wanted to believe that other people were somehow knowable, but it wasn’t something I could bring myself to take for granted. I knew there could be no absolute proof, but I wanted to be persuaded, I needed to be compelled.
Out on the street, in the dazzling sunshine of a warm Atlanta morning, a dozen young children were playing. Chasing, wrestling, and hugging each other, laughing and yelling, crazy and jubilant for no other reason than being alive on such a day. Inside the gleaming white building, though, behind double-glazed windows, the air was slightly chilly — the way John Shawcross preferred it — and nothing could be heard but the air conditioning, and a faint electrical hum.
The schematic of the protein molecule trembled very slightly. Shawcross grinned, already certain of success. As the pH displayed in the screen’s top left crossed the critical value — the point at which, according to his calculations, the energy of conformation B should drop below that of conformation A — the protein suddenly convulsed and turned completely inside-out. It was exactly as he had predicted, and his binding studies had added strong support, but to see the transformation, (however complex the algorithms that had led from reality to screen), was naturally the most satisfying proof.