The problem with writing science fiction in this age is that it catches up to you. I get an idea, I mull it over, I write it down, I let it ripen, I revise, I dither, and then there it is, a reality on the news. Perhaps if I cut out the dithering…Anyway, I wrote the first draft of this piece in June of 2011 and the other day on public radio I heard about this and this. Which aren’t quite what the story is about, but enough so to make what I thought were some innovative ideas look pretty ho-hum. If I didn’t know what to do with the story before when it felt edgy, I certainly don’t now. There is always a risk in sharing fiction like this, more so than just spilling commentary and images like I usually do, but I feel 2013 should be a little more about risk in the Wordtabulous domain. So here it is, first fiction in 2013. I hope you like it.
Rose Colored Lenses
by Lynnette Dobberpuhl
“Sit here,” Leone directed, glancing around the park center. Mason took a spot on the cement bench encircling a fountain, feeling burdened by the backpack she’d made him put on over his suit jacket. The sky was slightly overcast as usual, and the robust drought-loving plants sagged wearily in their planters. People hurried by alone and in couples, a few pushing strollers or walking dogs, rarely looking at each other. They were like the lackluster breeze: not fully there. Leone reached into Mason’s backpack and pulled out a folded piece of paper, a pair of eyeglasses and a brown fedora. She held them out to him.
He looked from the items to her face. “Seriously?” he asked.
“Trust me,” she urged. He studied her a moment more. Her black hair pulled back in a shellacked bun was as intense as her manner. She pierced him with blue eyes framed by black eyeglasses. He sighed. The hat was heavy, and felt tighter than it should have; there was something built into the band. The eyeglasses also felt weighty, but were perfectly clear. She handed him the sheet of paper, which looked like a normal piece of copier paper folded in half along its width. Mason looked at the blank page, then quizzically turned his gaze back to Leone. She was fiddling with an electronic tablet. “Wait,” she advised without looking at him.
Mason looked back at the paper. He heard a click and then saw a flash. His vision began to swim a bit. Small swirls of color coalesced into letters on the page, which seemed to gain weight in his hand and suddenly he was no longer holding a piece of paper, but a hardcover book. “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times,” he read. It was A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens. He concealed his surprise: the pages were thick, and turned with a rustle. They appeared to be sewn in and hand trimmed. The cover was slightly distressed leather with the title and author embossed in gold. He ran his hands over the book; it looked and felt like a beloved tome from a grand library. “Smell it,” commanded Leone. Mason pulled the book closer to his face and inhaled a familiar aged, dry papery aroma, with…was that a hint of pipe smoke? “Flip through the pages,” Mason felt the weight of the book shift in his hand as he opened it. He stopped at page 145, and read these words ‘Many a night he vaguely and unhappily wandered there, when wine had brought no transitory gladness to him; many a dreary daybreak revealed his solitary figure lingering there…’ He closed the book, hearing the snap of the cover clapping shut, feeling the whisper of air on his face as the pages came together.
“Remarkable, the new reader, is it?” He slipped the glasses off and the weight and image dissolved to reveal the paper still in his hand.
“The paper is nothing special, it’s just a prop to keep you from looking silly as you turn invisible pages,” Leone explained as she took the paper from him. “But Mason, that’s not why I brought you out here. I could have shown you that in the lab. Put the specs back on.” He complied and she fiddled again with the tablet. A movie played in front of his eyes, hovering at arm’s length. “This is kid stuff. Now this,” she said, working the tablet, “is the real thing.” The movie stopped and he heard the soft strains of a violin concerto. “Look around,” she said. As he did, Mason noted that the hazy sky had blued up somewhat, and that a few puffy clouds had formed. The flora looked greener in the better light. Altogether, the park seemed more cheerful. To his surprise the people walking by seemed to feel it, too. He detected a few soft smiles, some open gestures in conversation, unlike the usual huddled hurry. My God, he thought, is that a butterfly? With a gasp, he pulled the eyeglasses from his face and the illusion faded away. The sky was still overcast, the plants limp and tinged with gray, the sullen parade moved on as though watched by a judgmental eye. “Put those back on, you’re not done,” protested Leone. Taking a deep breath, Mason once again submitted and the music changed to a Latin beat. The bright sun beamed in a cloudless sky and flowers appeared in the hedges. A blond woman in a cheerful red dress moved down the path, swinging her hips to the beat. She smiled at him. He nudged the glasses down slightly to peer over the tops to see a pale woman in a burgundy trench coat glancing at him nervously before hurrying past. Then the music changed to death metal. Grey clouds swirled overhead and the plants around all withered. The path looked as though it was paved with crumbling gravestones. The people wore dark clothes that were slightly tattered and now seemed to move with a menacing intensity. Mason began shaking his head in disbelief.
“Hey, different strokes for different folks, right? One more thing…” Leone said, and the music switched back to the concerto. The weather cleared and Mason caught a hint of fresh cut grass on the wind. “Look around, and tell me if you notice anyone in particular,” Leone instructed. Mason looked around. The people walking past moved at the same pace, but seemed unrushed, more dignified. A mother was smiling at her child on a park bench to their right. Everyone seemed attractive but unremarkable. Then he saw her, across the path and a little to their left. An older woman was leaning against a low stone wall, doing a crossword or something on a folded newspaper. She glowed faintly, and Mason felt a surge of amiability toward her, as though she was someone pleasant he’d met briefly some time ago, except he was sure he’d never seen her before.
“Who is that?” he asked.
“That is our department head, Jane Fairbanks, and she wants to meet you,” Leone said, switching off the device. The better world faded back into the everyday and Mason stood, removing the hat and glasses. Jane Fairbanks, genuinely smiling, came over to greet him.
Back in the lab’s conference room they sipped a fortified tea-flavored beverage and ignored a plate of grayish wafers and cookies. Mason had questions: what was it called, how had they kept it a secret, how soon before the system could be streamlined and miniaturized, his head hurt; had they given him a tumor? And finally, would it work on food, adding flavor to the tasteless cookies for instance?
Fairbanks smiled at his enthusiasm. “We call it Lensis,” she said. “It has been developed entirely in-house by a small group of professionals in fields ranging from neuroscience, computer programming and engineering, and psychology, to fine art. Headaches are not uncommon at first, but there are no detectable health impacts beyond an elevated feeling of well-being. We are making in-roads on the taste issue, though it isn’t ready yet, and we have all the designs set up for a variety of streamlined systems. We are only months away from prototypes that could be worn under any type of hat or headband, or with modified eyeglasses and a slim strap that could be inserted around the back of the head and hidden under hair. Ultimately, people could have implants inserted invisibly beneath the scalp and wear contact lenses and never have a visible gadget at all. We won’t even need an external controller, because it can be operated with eye and head movements.”
“How would such a device be powered?” Mason asked, imagining a five pound battery pack implanted beneath his skin.
“Future generations can be powered wirelessly using kinetic, solar or chemical power cells.”
“Tell me more about that trick where you were shining and no one else was.”
Fairbanks smiled again. “We call that the ‘Glow.’ There will be a setting on each Lensis unit that allows users to turn on the Glow so they can be recognized by anyone else using Lensis in the area. It will build a community feeling, which we anticipating being useful in marketing.”
“And that warm, fuzzy feeling I got when I saw you all lit up?”
“That’s all part of the Glow, Mr. Mason.”
“Could the Glow be applied to objects as well? Say cars, or restaurants?”
“Mr. Mason, I understand what you are getting at, but the use of Lensis as a marketing tool could be a problem. If the public feels they are being manipulated as consumers, there will be a backlash. You remember how laughable the product placement strategy was in movies from around the turn of the century?”
“Perhaps something more subtle and understated, then?”
An inscrutable Fairbanks regarded him for a moment. “Perhaps,” she said.
Mason nodded. “So what do you need me for?”
“We have contacted you because we are out of funds. To build our next prototypes, to miniaturize the devices to a practical level, we need an investor.”
“If you want money, I need to know more about the commercial application. I can see the potential as an entertainment device…”
“Mr. Mason, consider these numbers,” Fairbanks said, sliding a dig-I button toward him. Mason applied it to his smart device and began flipping through charts and tables. “The first charts indicate the earnings potential for the system as an entertainment device alone, but look at the data preceding charts 6 & 7.” Mason skipped ahead. “Our preliminary findings show that using the system alleviates symptoms of depression. As you saw, it completely alters, one could say revolutionizes, a person’s perception of reality without altering reality itself.” She paused for emphasis. “Mr. Mason, do you have any idea how much money is spent in this country alone on medication to alleviate depression?”
“22.8 billion dollars annually,” answered Mason.
Fairbanks raised an eyebrow at his ready answer and continued, “And since Lensis is a device intended for entertainment, do you know how much time and money would be needed to help it pass through FDA loopholes?”
“Exactly zero, I believe,” Mason said.
“You believe correctly. Mr. Mason, do you represent anyone you believe might be interested in being part of the Lensis revolution?”
“I just may have someone in mind, Ms. Fairbanks.”
A few days before the Lensis release Mason returned to his grandparent’s farm with a Lensis device. He was curious to see how the effect worked on isolated places untouched by urban blight. First, he walked around the house, the old barn, the pond and the orchard and examined it all with the naked eye. He noted the peeling paint on the house, the decaying boards in the hayloft under the gap where the roof had collapsed, the overgrowth of scrub trees in the ailing orchard, but overall the pond, the yard—everything looked roughly as he’d remembered it. Then, he’d put on Lensis. The breeze had freshened, the air softening against his skin. The windowpanes glittered in the sun and his ears were filled with the buzzing of insects and frogs and the chirping of birds. An earthy, barnyard smell hinted at the animals he now remembered: a horse and two cows, and a small flock of chickens. He walked around the barn and the air became fragrant with apples hanging on the branches. A light gust rustled the grasses around the pond and he turned to look, his breath catching in his throat. Every twenty-five feet or so a blinding white egret stood sentinel around the edge of the sparkling water, watching for minnows and frogs. Those birds had fascinated him every year until one fall, decades ago, they had flown away for the winter, and never returned. He felt an odd sort of anticipation, as though at any minute someone he loved would drive up and call him to help unload groceries from the car.
He was startled when, hours later, he was pulled from his Lensis state by the beeping of his alarm, warning him he needed to leave to be back in the city for his evening meetings. His head no longer hurt after using the device, but seeing the Lensis effect evaporate to leave him in a yard full of dingy buildings and a muddy wetland brought an ache to his soul. His hand trembled on the steering column as he drove back to the city thinking, too sweet a poison and resolved never to put Lensis on again.
Edward Brandell examined his reflection in the window overlooking the city that stretched as far as the eye could see. His kingdom was spread before him, dimly illuminated with the New Conservation Approved bulbs, but he was noting the bags under his eyes. He brought the lead glass highball tumbler to his lips and savored the flavor and burn of the whiskey in his mouth, throat and gut. In a world of synthetic food and artificial flavors the real thing was worth any price. A door opened and closed quietly behind him. “Well?” he asked without turning.
Mason’s voice was tired. “We quelled the riot at the tire plant. One dead and twelve injured before we re-engaged Lensis access.”
“Re-engaged? I banned that damned system from the workplace! You can’t give in to them like that.”
“Ed, take it easy. We’ve got them on a five-minute access for every hour they are in the building. That’s huge progress. Maybe we can stretch it to five minutes for every three hours, but we are going to have to take this gradually. I swear to God, when we blocked that signal, I thought people were going to have seizures.”
“Those Lensis things aren’t even supposed to be in the building. It’s a condition of employment for Christ’s sake!”
“Well they ALL have them, and I am not exaggerating, Ed. People are hooked. Shutting them off cold turkey for eight hours will guarantee you a hell of a lot worse than some broken windows.”
“Well,” Brandell snapped, “letting them work with those things on is going to get people killed, either workers from being distracted on the factory floor, or customers driving on bad tires that looked good enough to quality control from their ‘happy place.’”
“It’s worse than that, Ed,” Mason said quietly. “The tire plant is the tip of the iceberg. The Lensis effect, which made you rich and got your candidates elected, is everywhere. We’ve got bus drivers, systems management people, doctors and teachers, hell, maybe even police officers using it at all hours, and now they wonder how they ever survived without it. Mistakes are being made, and no one notices because they are lost in feeling good. The number of people who have boycotted Lensis has dwindled to almost nothing, and the few who still are boycotting are written off as a fringe culture.”
“It’s a hell of a mess,” Brandell sighed. “What do we do?”
“Up to you. We could introduce a bug that would defeat some of the ‘feel good,’ and make it easier for people to wean themselves off, but then you are going to lose most of what you’ve gained. Society and the economy will reawaken to its slow demise.”
“That’s a cheery prospect.” Brandell took another sip of whiskey, looking at Mason’s reflection in the window. The man looked thin, he thought. “We’ll talk about it tomorrow; go get some rest. And, Mason,” he said, as Mason turned to the door.
Mason sagged, then exited without reply. In his rooms a few floors down he slumped into an overstuffed armchair that looked out over the same view Brandell enjoyed above. His mind’s eye was not on the city, but turned inward to the farm that was his childhood home.
They had been horrifyingly successful. The Lensis product had sold out immediately and continued to sell out, with each new generation more profitable than the last. Suicide rates went down and the economy picked up as people worked to afford Lensis devices and then demand increased for several other products benefiting from a subtly engineered Glow. Specially built Lensis systems designed to decrease prison violence worked splendidly and soon educational applications were also developed. But by this time the problems began to surface. Claims of sexual assault became muddled with perceived consent and inaccurate rose-colored descriptions. The murder and suicide rates rose again, higher than before. Robbery also increased as those without work became desperate for resources to access Lensis states, but public outcry was absent. The world viewed through rose-colored lenses was bearable, a sanctuary removed from the disintegrating planet and unraveling future view that had been descending upon them for generations.
Groaning, Mason tore at his hair, as though by opening his skull he could exorcise the demons he himself had invited in. Then he stood and straightened his tie, smoothed his hair. In the next room, his bedroom, he opened a wall safe behind a painting of egrets. Inside, there were two items: a loaded handgun and the Lensis device. Choosing, Mason settled himself on the center of his bed. In the darkness there was a click and a flash.