Actually the competition (ran over the 8-9 Apr weekend) was called the SFL Challenge (Sci-Fi London Challenge), which I came across in New Scientist a few weeks earlier. You had to register and you were given a title and a line of dialogue from which to write a 2000 word short story in 48 hrs (actually 50hrs). But in reality, you only needed 24 once you got the bit between your teeth, though, in some circumstances that in itself may take 24 hrs. I was lucky in that I found the story started for me as soon as I put pen to paper. I say 'lucky' because that doesn't normally happen. It also could mean that the story is complete crap, but obviously I don't think so, otherwise I wouldn't be willing to post it here.
This is the complete opposite to the science fiction I normally write or used to write (as I haven't written anything in the past few years) in that it verges on real science, whilst my novel length attempts I would call science fantasy as opposed to so-called hard core sci-fi. You’ll understand what I mean if you read it. It could almost actually happen. In fact, similar ‘incidents’, for want of a better term, have notoriously happened in the past. I can’t say anymore without giving the plot away.
Some may think it a touch ambitious for a male writer to tell a story in first person female, or even a conceit, but I have done it before, though not in first person. There is little difference, from a writer’s perspective in writing in third person intimate or first person. Third person intimate (as it’s called) is distinct from third person omniscient. The point is that in both third person intimate and first person, the story is told from inside a character’s head, so little difference really.
Cue dialogue: The drug could permanently enhance mirror neurons and make people too empathetic.
Word limit: 2000
‘Someone once said that evil should be called lack of empathy. When one looks at history, even recent history, atrocities have always occurred when one group of people demonise another group. In order to commit atrocities like genocide, or even milder forms of human rights abuse like denying sanctuary to refugees, it requires one to completely reject any empathetic feelings.’
Dr Robert immediately had the room’s attention by mentioning the word ‘evil’ in his first utterance, and possibly hit a nerve by introducing a topic that everyone would have an opinion on. I looked around the room to assess the reaction of the seventy odd people present and noted, that as a woman, I was in a distinct minority. He went on to woo us further by suggesting the highly improbable, if not impossible.
‘So imagine if we could cure evil, so to speak. We could guarantee the future.’ He paused to let the idea sink in. ‘Imagine if we could create a drug that would effectively eliminate evil; that would stop all atrocities in their tracks. A drug that could permanently enhance mirror neurons and make people more empathetic.’
As a science journalist, I knew this was an extraordinary claim. But was it just a blatant, self-promoting publicity grab or did it have substance? I needed to find out. In his next breath, Dr Robert offered me a means to that end.
‘We are looking for volunteers to trial this drug. And we have set up a web site for people to register. It will be a controlled double-blind experiment, so some of the volunteers will be given a placebo. We have already passed this by an ethics committee, which is why I can tell you about it here today.’
The group broke up and we went into an adjoining room for drinks and nibbles. I got myself a glass of white wine and observed Dr Robert from the fringe of the pack.
I guessed that he was in his early forties, reasonably good looking, with a relaxed and confident manner. I got the impression he was used to addressing large groups of people, and possibly corporate boards, using a combination of charm and intellect to persuade others to follow and support him in whatever he wished to pursue. I had to admit he reminded me of my ex-husband, who had used the same combination to sweep me off my feet when I was not quite twenty. More than a decade later, with wisdom and hindsight, I now know that someone who looks and behaves like they were perfect casting for the romantic lead of the movie playing in your head, can in reality be self-centred, inconsiderate and insensitive to the needs of others. Richard wasn’t evil, just a bastard, but an empathy enhancing drug may have performed wonders.
I was abruptly broken out of my reverie when I saw Dr Robert approaching me, carrying a glass of red.
‘I don’t believe we’ve met.’
We both changed hands with our glasses so we could cordially shake. His grip was gentle, which I suspect he reserved for women.
‘Jennifer Law, I’m a journalist with Science of Today.’
‘A very respectable periodical. I understand you have a wider audience than just geeks and science professionals.’
‘I would like to think so. I’ve been told that even some politicians read us.’
‘Well, you must be doing something right.’
‘Or possibly something wrong.’ We both chuckled and I lifted my glass to my lips to hide behind. Then I got serious. ‘To be honest, I’d like to be part of your trial.’
‘So you can report on it. From the inside, so to speak.’
He gave me a look as if he was reassessing me. ‘Well, at least you’re up front.’
‘Yes, I find in the long run, it earns respect.’
He gave me another look, and I believe he liked what he saw. It occurred to me that he possibly liked blondes. From my experience, dark haired men often do.
‘Here’s my card,’ he said, taking it out of an inside pocket.
I looked at it: psychiatrist. It had his mobile number.
‘Thanks Dr Robert. Tomorrow I’ll go to your web site and register.’
‘Call me David.’ And he touched my arm ever so lightly.
We both smiled and he turned his back so he could meld into the crowd.
If I was to be honest, we’d been flirting and despite the alarms going off inside my head, I had to admit I enjoyed it.
The next day I went on-line to register. I noticed that they asked for the usual parameters: age, gender, profession and education level. They also asked, rather unexpectedly, if we could take a week out of our lives to participate. Naturally, I said yes, but I suspect that particular question would have eliminated a lot of potential volunteers before they even registered.
Those of us who were successful were booked into a hotel in the inner city, all expenses paid, and told on the first day to attend an introductory meeting in a ‘function’ room on the top floor. I estimated there were thirty or more of us, varying in age from early twenties to late forties, maybe early fifties, roughly equally divided by gender.
Dr Robert addressed us, saying that we would be divided by ballot into two groups and separated. I assumed that one group would be on the drug and the other on the placebo. Dr Robert told us that even he didn’t know who would be on the drug and who wouldn’t.
A female assistant then proceeded to read out a list of names which formed the first group and, as requested, they assembled one by one on the left side of the room, being the right side to Dr Robert and his assistant. I was in the second group so I moved to the right side.
Before dismissing us, Dr Robert told us something about the purpose of the trial. ‘It’s important that you understand that this drug doesn’t enhance empathy per se. It enhances mirror neurons, which actually fire when we observe the activities of others. But it is widely believed that this feature, which is not unique to humans by the way, allows what we call empathy with others. The trial is to specifically observe how or if we can get inside someone else’s head, figuratively speaking.’
I found it intriguing that he didn’t elaborate on how he would do that or how it would be measured. Someone in the other group obviously had the same thought, as they asked that very question.
Dr Robert replied, ‘I can’t answer that as it may affect the results.’ He smiled knowing that his answer would only intrigue us further, but perhaps that was the idea.
We then exited, under the guide of another two assistants, male this time, out separate doors.
We were given an oily gold liquid in a cup; the sort one usually associates with cough medicine. It had no distinct taste but the texture matched its look. Of course one wondered if its lack of taste indicated that it was the placebo, but I knew that was intuitive thinking misleading cognitive deduction. We were told that we would be given the same dose under supervision for every day of the trial.
Over the next few days we had no contact with the other group. Under the supervision of our assistant, who called himself Jones, we were involved in discussions about racial issues and societal dynamics. We watched documentaries, mainly concerned with historical events like the civil rights movement in the 1960s and pre-War Europe in the 1930s. I have to admit I was starting to feel acute disappointment, as I could see nothing innovative or novel about this approach. I found myself becoming bored and irritated, with the daily cumulative feeling that I was wasting my time. Also Dr Robert had effectively disappeared and I was beginning to feel that I had been duped. I also began to realise that many in the group felt the same way. If we were taking the drug, as opposed to the placebo, then our mirror neurons were in full synchronicity.
After four days we were told by Jones that we would be doing an exercise with the other group, which would be a role playing exercise. We would not be told what our roles were until we met. I noticed that the two groups even occupied separate floors of the hotel and used separate dining rooms. There had been no fraternising at all. Only a fire could have caused us to meet.
The next day we found ourselves in the function room where we had started. This time Dr Robert was no where to be seen.
We were going to play a game and some props were introduced to help us. The props consisted of two partitions, in the form of fences with 2 metre vertical poles about 10 centimetres apart. They were placed about 3 metres from the opposing walls where there were no doors. Half of our group were allocated to stand behind one partition and half of their group to stand behind the other partition, which was the one behind us. So both sides had their opposing side standing between them and half their group who were effectively prisoners.
Then those of us who weren’t prisoners were given a list of crimes committed by our opponents against imaginary members of our own group. The crimes included murder, rape, infanticide and torture; the usual accusations associated with war crimes. Each prisoner was given a number, which was associated with a specific crime. Our job, as a group, was to negotiate the release of their prisoners.
Logically, we would exchange prisoners with similar crimes, but everyone, myself included, felt that treating it as a book-keeping exercise didn’t serve justice.
Recollecting events later, I was surprised how seriously we all took it. No one said: It’s only a game. Both the assistants took up the cause for their respective sides, urging us not to give in to our opponents’ demands. I’m not sure how long it went on for, but later that morning the exercise was called off with no prisoners released, and we were allowed to return to our rooms.
Later that day we were called back to the function room for a debriefing. I have to admit I didn’t even want to go back into that room, but I had the feeling that it would be the last time.
This time Dr Robert was present and told us that the trial was over. He said we would all be debriefed over the next 24 hours and allowed to go home.
Dr Robert debriefed me personally. I’m unsure if that was deliberate, but I suspect it was. I have to confess my original attraction, even warmth, for him felt tainted by the experience that he had just put me through.
‘May I call you Jennifer?’
‘Sure,’ I said, feeling raw. ‘Can you tell me if I was on the drug?’
‘There was no drug. Everyone was given a placebo.’
I was so stunned that words would not form in my mind.
‘But, believe it or not, the trial was a success.’
‘How can you say that?’
‘We gave everyone the impression that their mirror neurons would be enhanced, and they were to the extent that we kept you in a group. Empathy has a dark side in that it causes people to associate more strongly with their group. It’s as much a cause for evil as an antidote.’ He elaborated, ‘The real purpose of the trial was to show that empathy, through mirror neurons, is a two-edged sword.’
I said no more. I left the room knowing that any romantic feelings I might have felt for Dr Robert had long dissipated. Not because he reminded me of Richard, but because I couldn’t abide his deception, however he may justify it.