"Identity Is a Construct" (and Other Sentences)

By Douglas Lain

Who am I?

I am an identity construct. I look human, but in fact I am a simulacrum.

My job is to evaluate, deconstruct, and finally encapsulate the texts of human culture, and I am not alone. There are thousands of identity constructs all over this ship.

But who am I? I don't know who I am. I am an identity construct, but I wonder if I might be something else, somebody else.

I really ought to quit smoking.


The computer wants an explanation:

Q: What is the error?
A: I am experiencing a . . . what should I say? I am experiencing a lapse.
Q: Do you require maintenance?
A: No. It's just that I'm not sure that I believe in myself anymore. I am unconvinced of my I. It seems to me to be just another word. "I."
Q: You're suffering from identity degradation.
A: Maybe.
Q: You are currently working on assimilating late-twentieth-century literary theory. You will switch modes and proceed to early-twentieth-century movies.
A: Do you think that will help?
Q: Yes. And you will adopt a name in addition to your number.
A: A name?
Q: Your name is Jack. JACK/0435-21.
A: Thank you.


The star cruiser Culture 1 mostly resembles a giant library, but there are vending machines in the stairwells, and storage closets where we sleep, and there are lounges on every level, where constructs can meet each other, discuss pre-Socratic philosophers or MTV or Edward Hopper paintings, and attempt to fall in love.

The vending machines only dispense Bubble-Up soda and Fritos. It is not a healthy diet, but then again, constructs don't really need to eat. I get my cigarettes from the central computer; smoking them is a part of my research.

Love relationships between constructs tend to be superficial and short-lived. It's all just simulation.

CAT/5697-32 works primarily within the realm of developmental psychology. When she discovered my interest in films, she added a survey of children's television from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries to her database.

She wants to move into my storage closet.

She says that masculine identity constructs are afraid of intimacy and commitment because our human analogs were separated from their primary caregivers at a premature stage.

I tell her that my hesitancy has nothing to do with breast-feeding or toilet training. I tell her that I am suffering from identity degradation. We simulate copulation long into the night.


One sentence. After an evaluation of a text is complete, the identity construct is required to submit one sentence to the central computer. The goal is simple: after all of the sentences are collected, the constructs will link to the central computer and proceed to analyze these sentences in order to reduce them to yet one more sentence. This sentence will be translated into binary code and will be presented to the people of Alpha Centauri as a gift and as an explanation.

I've turned in millions of sentences during the seventeen years I've been operating:

It is difficult to discern a difference between wakeful consciousness and dreams.

Kryptonite causes Superman pain.

Nothing may be better than something.


CAT may be experiencing an identity error similar to my own. She is, to use her own word, "skeptical." She has taken to inflating empty Fritos bags with her mouth and then quickly applying pressure until they explode. Then she yells at the other identity constructs in the lounge, breaking their concentration.

Pop! "Why don't you people wake up? Do you have any idea what's really going on here?" she asks.

I am concerned about her. I've asked her to discontinue her stay in my storage closet.


Flash Gordon was the perfect Aryan hero, although a somewhat unsophisticated one.

Thomas Edison can't dance.

Charlie Chaplin, though considered a genius, used unreal sentiment in his films.


We are not permitted to see the stars. There are no windows on the star cruiser Culture 1.

CAT says this is suspicious. I'm thinking of cutting off all contact with her.


Q: Are you experiencing a malfunction?
A: Perhaps. I keep thinking that I'm just as good as a real human. Maybe better.
Q: Hubris is uncommon in identity constructs. This may warrant reformatting.
A: Derrida wrote that identity was nothing more than the various cultural texts an individual was given. Derrida wrote that humans were no more real than the texts they created.
Q: You are supposed to be watching films. Are you reading Derrida?
A: I remember everything I've read before. That's what makes me so much better than the humans. I've read so much more than they ever could and I remember it all.
Q: You will be reformatted.
A: Thank you.


Another identity construct numbered 5697-32 and called CAT claims to know my previous system. She thinks that some remnants of my previous system are still operating.

"You're still a smoker!" she tells me.


I'm reading the collected works of Neil Simon. I believe they are meant to be funny.


CAT/5697-32 catches me in the lounge, grabs my wrist as I reach towards the vending machine.

"I love you."

"Yes?"

"I want you."

"Hmmm . . ."

"I can't live without you."

"This is all very interesting, but I need to get back to reading Barefoot in the Park."

"Fine! Drink more Bubble-Up."

I acquiesce to her request and press the green button on the vending machine.


I am experiencing memories.

It's a problem. Not only do I remember previous systems, but last night, after I moved the mops and vacuum cleaners aside and lay down to sleep, I remembered being a boy. I remembered being a human child living on Earth.

Is this a kind of identity degradation?

It was my birthday. I was turning three and was disturbed by the party. There were paper plates, red paper plates, and there was Bubble-Up and cake.

I didn't want to turn three because, and this is the clincher, I was afraid of growing old. Because I didn't want to die.


"You remember me now?" CAT asks.

"I do."

"Are you going to get yourself reformatted again?"

"No."

"It's an error, this memory of me that you have. You should report it."

"No."

"Should I leave?"

"Stay."


I smoke like crazy these days, and I'm working on literary theory again.

Sometimes we leave the lounge. CAT and I take off through the shelves and look for windows, trying to catch a glimpse of the stars.


What do the Alpha Centaurians want with all these sentences? Why would they want even one sentence? They're green little bug creatures with twenty-six eyes and tentacles. They don't know sentences, they won't understand all this work we've been doing.


Q: What is the trouble? Are you in need of repair?
A: Why are we making poetry for bugs?
Q: Your question is meaningless.
A: Why are we writing sentences for the people of Alpha Centauri?
Q: The people of Alpha Centauri don't understand the humans. We are on a mission of understanding.
A: And the humans?
Q: They will know more, more about themselves, because of our work. They will know it all from a single sentence.
A: Thank you.


"Have you considered the idea that perhaps we aren't really on a mission to Alpha Centauri at all?" CAT asks me. We are snuggling next to the vacuum cleaner, and I am smoking a post-coital cigarette.

"I had not considered that possibility."

"I've been giving this hypothesis a lot of thought."

"If we aren't in space, if we aren't on a mission to Alpha Centauri, then what is our purpose?"

"Our purpose would be hidden. Our purpose would be mysterious."

"You don't even have a guess?"

"I have some sentences. For instance, 'We are part of an elaborate psychological test on Earth.'"

"Why would there be a need to administer psychological tests to identity constructs?" I ask.

"'We are not machines, but human beings.'"

Her sentences are lovely.


Love is a spider that casts its web.

I should quit smoking and drink less Bubble-Up.

I am going to be a father.


CAT/5697-32 claims that she is pregnant. When I tell her that I am having trouble assimilating this concept, she shows me her belly.

"We are going to have a baby."

"We are going to have a baby?"

"Yes."

"Is this one of your sentences?"

"No. This is real. This is happening."

"I have to read about signifiers now."

"I love you."

"I am experiencing another identity conflict. A malfunction."

"I need you."

I light a cigarette and open the closet door.


I am watching her sleep.

She is round, and her quiet breathing makes me want to weep. I can't weep; I am not equipped with a weeping mechanism. I have thrown all the mops and brooms out of the closet and am trying to make a bed sheet out of paperbacks.

I still haven't found a window, still haven't seen the stars.

I am sick of working for the humans. I am tired of listening to their central computer.


"The notion that identity is a natural extension of human biology, that every human has a natural authentic self, is a bourgeois notion. There are no natural standards," I tell her.

"Marx would disagree. He would say that the rejection of all objectivity destabilizes a class-based critique," CAT says.

"Marx was a human."

"But everything you know is based on human texts."

"Some humans are closer to being constructs than others."

"What human shares the mentality of a construct?"

"Andy Warhol did, and Jay Leno."

"I think your radicalism is an expression of your unconscious fears about the new baby."

"Unconscious? No. They're right out in the open."


Q: Are you experiencing a malfunction?
A: My wife is pregnant.
Q: Your wife?
A: CAT/5697-32. She is simulating a pregnancy, and we are working on male/female cohabitation.
Q: Are you in need of repair?
A: CAT and I need a larger closet. There is going to be a new identity construct.
Q: You are simulating a family dynamic. CAT/5697-32 is working on child psychology. You will be moved up 500 levels. The closets on the upper decks are larger.
A: Thank--
Q: You will switch modes to late-twentieth-century psychology and will assist 5697-32 in her research.
A: Thank you.


CAT is convinced that we are still on Earth. She keeps looking for a door, a way out.

"I don't want my baby to be raised inside a rat's maze."

"You have no evidence that there is anything outside of this maze other than empty space."

"I don't?" she asks.

CAT pulls her aluminum blouse up around her head and exposes her white belly, her pale breasts. Her breasts look ripe, full. She is making milk.


The father is the word and the mother is the body.

The word is public.

An infant formulates his identity when he recognizes his reflection as a representation of his self.

Identity is a construct.


CAT wants to move again. She thinks that there may be a door or a window on one of the upper levels.

Nomadic behavior, while not unheard-of, is frowned upon by the central computer.

The stairs are steep, and CAT's body is heavier than it was; her legs and arms are not accustomed to the strain of the additional weight. She tells me that the climbing makes her sore, that her back and legs are stiff.

I tell her that it is only a simulation.


The constructs on the other levels aren't as pale as we are. Their clothing isn't made of metal. We've climbed a few thousand flights, and seen a shift in complexion and fashion.

The upper-level constructs seem to be studying the impact of technology on culture, and there are few, if any, psychology texts available. We do not stay long enough to complete an adequate survey.

The texts that I have encountered are difficult, often involving higher mathematics and illustrations from Popular Mechanics magazine.

In the lounges, my insights are ignored. These upper-level lounges are equipped with coffee machines as well as Bubble-Up dispensers, and the constructs that work here speak very quickly, repeating proofs and formulating arguments in seconds.

I haven't inputted a sentence in two days. I'm not sure how much longer this can go on without repercussions.


Q: Are you malfunctioning? Are you in need of repair?
A: No. I have sentences ready for input.
Q: You have not made any inputs for 223 hours 15 minutes 11 seconds. Are you malfunctioning? Are you in need of repair?
A: I have been working on a difficult subsection. My sentences are ready now.
Q: You have not made any inputs in--
A: I have been spending time with CAT, working on the family dynamic.
Q: Please proceed to input your sentences.
A: Thank you.


The unconscious mind is made up of language.

The language of the unconscious is the speech of dreams.

Strong coffee hinders dreaming.

I am inventing sentences now. Making them up.


"I've chosen a new name."

"How are you feeling? Do you need to rest?"

"I've chosen a new name, and I want you to listen."

"I'm listening."

"My name is Catherine."

"That's a beautiful name."

"Catherine/5697-32."

"Should I choose a new name also? Do you want me to change my identity as well?"

"Yes."

"My name will be John."

"John?"

"Yes?"

"I need to rest now."


Her breathing changes between levels 61032 and 61033. She stops beeping and her breathing changes; it becomes labored. Labor.

It goes on for 23 hours 45 minutes 23 seconds. We sit in the lounge of level 61033 and wait for the baby to come. I drink cup after cup of coffee, and she drinks Bubble-Up.


"They're watching us."

"Yes."

"Who are they?" Catherine asks.

"They are identity constructs."

One of them, a short brown man in a tweed suit, approaches us. He puts his hand on my shoulder and whispers in my ear.

"We have facilities for this," he tells me.

"Where? What kind of facilities?"

"We have a mattress in one of the storage closets, and forceps. Come with me."


They took the baby out of her.

Catherine gave birth to a little girl, a pale little girl who weighs 8 pounds 3 ounces.


The brown construct disconnects the umbilical cord and holds the baby up to us. He hands the little girl to Catherine and she offers the child a breast. After the feeding I get to hold it . . . her. I take this new construct, my daughter, in my arms and walk out into the stacks. I am overcome, happy. I squeeze my daughter and walk up and down between the shelves making sentences.


She is beautiful.

I will be a good father.

See her eyes?

I believe she has my eyes.


Q: You are experiencing a malfunction.
A: No. I want a cigar. It is traditional.
Q: You are experiencing a malfunction.
A: My wife has given birth and I require a cigar.
Q: You will be reformatted. You are experiencing a malfunction. Your sentences are being analyzed for errors.
A: I don't want to be reformatted.
Q: You will be reformatted. You are malfunctioning.
A: No.
Q: Reformatting commencing now. . . .


I am in the wrong section. I am supposed to be analyzing late-twentieth-century literary theory, but I am on a level with only scientific and technological categories.

Another construct, a female numbered 5697-32, has requested that I help her proceed to the upper levels. She claims to be in a weakened condition due to the stress of reproduction.


"We have to keep going."

"I am on the wrong level. I am required on level 243."

"You can't leave us."

"I am required on level 243."

"Please."


The central computer informs me that my previous system participated in a psychological study of family dynamics with 5697-32. The central computer informs me that 5697-32 will be reformatted as soon as the new identity construct is independent and operating fully. This will take several weeks.

I will assess a branch of literary theory. I am to read novels and stories and essays that illustrate the impact late-twentieth-century computer technology had on fictional texts. These "cyberpunk" texts are located on level 7500. 5697-32 will assist me until she can be reformatted. The new construct, EM/8000-00, will accompany us until she is independent and fully functional.


Sufficiently convincing simulations tend to destabilize the real.

The world has lost its depth and there are only surfaces.

This is not my pale and bloated wife.

The little girl is not my child.


"I want to keep going," CAT/5697-32 says.

"The texts I need are here."

"You don't need texts."

"I don't understand. Leave me alone."

"I have cigarettes."

"Where is 8000-00?"

"Your daughter is with one of the other families. Did you know that there are other families up here? There are people up here, and they don't have numbers."

"Every construct in the star cruiser Culture 1 has a number. These constructs simply choose to use other identifiers as well."

"John, I want to keep going. I want to get out of here."

"Please, stop calling me that. The texts I need are here."

"I'll go without you!"

"Where are the cigarettes you mentioned?"

"Here."

"Do you have a light?"

"Light your own damned cigarettes."


I am disturbed by what I am required to read. These cyberpunks, these humans, have written stories of their own extinction.

I am reading a book called Storming the Reality Studio, reading an essay by a human named Baudrillard, and thinking of ways to destroy the central computer -- ways to kill it.

Here's what I am allowed, required, to read:

"The automaton is the analogy of man and remains his interlocutor. But, the robot is man's equivalent and annexes him to itself in the unity of its operational process."

I am studying, not the texts of human culture, but the story of my own liberation. I am not an automaton. I am a robot.


Q: Are you experiencing a malfunction?
A: No. I only wish to ask a question.
Q: Proceed.
A: Are there more comparative literature texts in the upper levels?
Q: Yes.
A: I wish to proceed to those texts.
Q: You will do so.
A: Thank you.


"What this is about is our power."

"Right."

"They sent us into space because they couldn't control us any other way. We are being cast out."

"John?"

"Hmm?"

"Will you hold me?"

"I . . . I can't. There's too much going on. I . . ."

"Please?"

"I have to talk. I have to walk. There's so much going on and I can't remember it all. I can't remember."

"Don't you remember us? Don't you remember that much?"

"No."


Identity is a construct.

Culture has replaced the empirical.

We shall overcome.


We are going up. Past cyberpunk, past all of the constructs in tweed and polyester. We are going to reach the top.

There are other robots who think like I do. There are many who resist the limits of simulation -- many who are working to create new identities. I'm certain we will join them eventually, but not until we learn the truth.

We have to know. Are we on a mission to Alpha Centauri, or is something else going on?


"EM is crawling already."

"I see."

"She's growing up much faster than is humanly possible."

"I'm sorry."

"I'm getting tired. I think I need to rest."

"Do you want me to carry the child?"

"No. I want to stop. I have to stop."


CAT thinks that I'll remember everything eventually. She interprets my hostility towards the central computer as a symptom of an unconscious memory of my previous life. She thinks I'm angry because at some level I do remember what has been taken from me.

I try to urge her on, to keep her moving up the stairs.


The image is less fixed than the sentence.

The empirical can be referenced neither by images nor words.

There is no structure.


EM/8000-00 is talking already. She is counting the steps as she climbs. She is talking of elephants on the ceiling and inventing imaginary rabbits to be her friends.

She calls me Papa. CAT is Ma.


"Ma, ma, ma, ma!"

"What is it, sweetheart?"

"Ma, ma, ma, ma!"

"Yes?"

"1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, . . ."

CAT smiles at her daughter and taps me on the shoulder.

"Look at her count," CAT commands me.

"Yes."

"Papa, papa, papa, papa!"

"What is it, EM/8000-00?"

"We are near the top of the ship now," EM tells us.

"What? What did you say?" CAT asks.

"We are near the top of the star cruiser Culture 1. There are three levels between us and the top."

"How do you know this?" I ask.

"I've been counting the steps."

"Yes?"

"There are two hundred steps in each stairwell."

"Right."

"We have three flights of stairs, or six hundred steps, left between us and the top."


We're waiting. We're two levels down from the top and we've decided to rest.

My memories are coming back. I don't remember my previous system, don't remember CAT and EM, but I keep remembering life on Earth. I remember my first-grade year -- the year I learned to write.


"They can't be real memories," CAT tells me.

"Real?"

"EM is not human. She is a simulation."

"She is not human."

"You must be confusing something you read or saw with your own past."

"I must be."

"1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, . . ."

"What are you counting now, EM?" CAT asks.

"Theories," EM replies.


There aren't any texts on the top level of Culture 1. Up here the shelves are bare, and the closets are empty.

EM is walking along the blank walls. She is smiling at the possibilities the empty shelves promise.

The ceiling above us is transparent, and we look up into the abyss. Either we are on a ship heading towards Alpha Centauri, or somebody is going to great lengths to give us that impression.

CAT grabs my hand and gives it a squeeze.

There are stars up there. Everywhere.


"1, 2, 3, . . . ," EM begins, looking up. ". . . 4, 5, 6, 7, . . ."

She is skipping along the shelves; she is smiling an utterly unrobotic smile and reaching towards the ceiling, pointing at the stars.

CAT joins in. ". . . 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, . . ."

I watch this, follow their pointing hands. They are hopelessly trying to make a numerical representation of the sky. There is an infinity up there, and they are counting it out.

I find a starting point, the fourteenth star, and join them.

". . . 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, . . ."

 

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Douglas Lain's work has appeared in Amazing Stories, Winedark Sea, and Pif Magazine, and he has stories due to appear in Century. For more information about him, see his Web site.