After work, John called his friend on his way home and told him he was too hungover and tired to meet him that evening as they had previously planned. He just wanted to go home, put his feet up, get an early night and think.
He hadn’t mentioned the thinking part. He wasn’t really ready to get into a conversation about what he hoped to think about. As exhausted as he was, his mind was still buzzing with ideas, fizzing and popping with epiphany.
They re-arranged to meet late the next morning for brunch instead.
When he got home, John microwaved something from the freezer, he was feeling too burned out to bother to cook. He turned on the goggle box to give him something to stare at while he ate.
He flicked through the channels, trying to find something pretty and not too challenging. Some mind-candy, just interesting enough to keep him awake while he ate but not so intense he’d have to devote much concentration to it. Eventually he settled on a Buffy The Vampire Slayer re-run.
When he’d first discovered Buffy, John had become a little obsessed, he would be the first to confess. He’d been unemployed and there’d been two shows broadcast every single day. He went through all hundred and twenty odd episodes far too quickly and was pretty sad when they’d all run out.
Now that he thought of it, during that time he’d had vampire dreams pretty often. Been saved by, and saved, Buffy herself more times than he could count. He’d staked vampires through the heart and watched them crumble to dust, cast spells with the red haired witch character, been in chases and fights with all kinds of demons and monsters.
Had he re-created Buffy in his sleep? Made her alive? Conscious? Had the writer, Joss Whedon, breathed literal life into the girl? By passing on the actions, words, thoughts and motivations of that school kid as she grew, creating a model of her in the brains of his fans and viewers, was he actually giving his fictional character the ability to affect the world? To change it? To make the world, or at least the people in it, more like Buffy?
John shook his head to try and clear his mind. Tried to concentrate more on the show he was watching and the food he was eating.
The good-witch character in the show had cast a spell which had gone wrong, and caused all the main characters to forget who they are. John found his resolve to concentrate on the show dissolved, and instead spent most of the time pondering exactly what makes a character conscious in a mind if all that the character is, all they themselves remember, is wiped clean.
The penguin in his dream last night had insisted that while he was conscious through the action of John’s own neural hardware, his memories hadn’t been transferred. “memories can’t transfer easily from one brain to another,” it’d claimed.
So what exactly had been copied into John’s mind if not the memories of the penguin? Somehow it’s essence, it’s character, it’s purpose had survived and been transferred just by those first few chapters of that book. However the episodic memories that, in a normal person, would have created that soul and shaped it were missing.
John thought of his ex-lover, Storm, the hippie fairy girl who believed in literal souls and spiritual healing and all the crazy nonsense that’d caused their break up in the first place. He saw in his mind’s eye the way she would smile now if she could see him starting to believe in this strange sidual magic and reevaluate his understanding of what it means to be conscious. She’d believed it instinctively, without ever having to understand why or how it worked.
He still thought of her quite often. Still loved her really. He knew how she’d react to the events of his life, what advice she’d give, her approval or disapproval of the actions he took. Did this mean she was actually conscious inside of him?
He assumed that she likewise had a fairly detailed model of him inside her mind. That she could hear his skepticism and confident rejection of mumbo-jumbo. Was he somehow alive inside her skull? Conscious and yet cut off from his body, his memories, his past. How would he know if he was?
What was the essence of his character that she presumably held in the pulsing of her neurons? What exactly did her brain do when it modeled his existence, his reactions, his motivations and indeed his whole personality, even without access to his memories? Was it really the same thing that he himself did in order to, well, to be himself?
He’d never mentioned to her the childhood dog attack which had left him with a fear of the animals to this day, they’d never talked about his fear at all, yet surely she’d witnessed his subtle reactions whenever they came across such beasts. Even subconsciously smelled his increased adrenaline. Was that enough for the model of him inside her to share his fear, or was that version of him above such irrational phobia?
When the show finished, John washed up his plate and took to his bed, picking the book up from his pillow and ironing out the creases in its pages as best he could.
He couldn’t really remember where he’d managed to read to the previous night. The text seemed to merge with his dream and much of the next few chapters he’d already figured out for himself, without the help of the book, during the working day.
The book described how modern culture was absolutely choc-full of sidual magic, that laws, corporations, religions and even our consciousness itself was built from the stuff.
John was surprised that the penguin’s personality, it’s soul, its essence, was only really addressed tangentially. There were no long passages describing it’s passions or it’s thought processes, just a few dialogs between the penguin and one of the characters in the book and a lot of leading questions.
Indeed, the book seemed to ask many more questions than it answered. The text actually addressed John’s surprise however. It noted that the preponderance of unanswered questions and lack of direct description of the personality traits of the penguin was done deliberately to force the reader’s brain to work harder, to actually try to calculate the answers and so push the main sidual in the book, the penguin, deeper into the subconscious mind.
“The aim”, the book noted, “isn’t to describe the reason for the penguin’s existence, but to force the reader’s brain to contemplate the issues surrounding his creation. Simply telling the reader is far less effective than getting the reader to actually go through the penguin’s thought processes. To physically simulate the penguin.”
“Brains,” it said, “get good at the things they practice doing. The things they do a lot. The aim of this book isn’t to give you the answers but to get you into the habit of particular patterns of thought.”
John wasn’t sure what the hell that meant, but he read on anyway, his mind absorbing the sidual magic behind the book subconsciously.
“You don’t create a model of a person in your mind by having them tell you their life story, but by observing them, their reactions, their body language. By pondering the questions ‘what is this person thinking? How does their mind work? What is their model of reality like?‘”
The book seemed to suggest that the sidual magic of the penguin itself would work best if it never explicitly stated the intention behind the creation of the icons used, but instead led the reader to ponder the questions for themselves.
It noted that corporate logos and advertising are never explicitly designed to sell, but to activate subtle associative networks in the minds of those who saw them. These networks then lead the brain towards the goals of those who created them automatically.
John yawned. It’d been a hard day in front of the cash register. He paused to think about the things he had learned from this tiny booklet, and his own thoughts prompted by that missive.
He found it fascinating, but he still remained utterly unconvinced. How could sidual magic, mere ideas, mere characters, have a physical effect in the world, even if they are spread far and wide among the people of the globe? He stared at the cover of the book for a while then closed his eyes and tried to conjure up the image of the penguin from his dream the night before. The real-life three-dimensional active and alive version rather than the dead soulless image from the front page.
It was difficult, but he persevered. Tried to imagine what it would be like to have another conversation with the strange waddling bird.
He tried imagining himself back on his couch, chatting to the penguin. Tested asking it a few questions. Visualizing the thing as hard as he knew how, trying to see it as if it was actually there.
“Hey, penguin, are you conscious yet?” he asked aloud.
He closed his eyes more tightly, thinking about the reflection of light off the penguin’s dark slitty eyes. Trying to see his own reflection in them.
He opened his eyes again. Stared at the ceiling.
What did it take? What was he missing? Where was that damned animal? Did it take authentic belief? Was he failing to emulate the aquatic bird in his mind because he didn’t really think it possible?
He thought of Storm, of her insistence that believing things actually made them real, in some bizarre sense. Felt her holding him, whispering into his ear to just let go and start to believe.
He tried again. Pretending it might work.
“Hey, penguin, are you there?” he muttered, wondering what the penguin would say if it were there in the room, listening to his words. Trying to figure out how it would answer if it were in fact only half there, only a shadow of itself.
He forced himself to imagine its words. “I’m here to the extent you think I am,” he visualized it saying, “but I’m still more you than I am me.”
Storm held him more tightly. “Let go, just let it happen” she whispered, her lips brushing his ear lobe, “it’s already happening, if you’d stop fighting it.”
He turned his head to face her, looked into her pupils, wide open from the dark, and kissed her.
He moved his hand down her bare back towards her round bottom. “If only you’d been able to explain,” he told her, “if only you’d known why this stuff works!”
“Not all of it does work, knowing how it works can help you sort truth from insanity,” said a voice from the doorway.
John looked up to the source of the skepticism. A four foot high penguin leaned casually in the door frame, scratching itself with a flipper. “Sorry if I’m interrupting some kind of sexual fantasy,” it said, “I’ll leave you two alone if you want me to.”
Storm climbed naked out of the bed and pulled on a dressing gown. “He needs you more then he needs me right now,” she said, “I already did all that I could.”
She bent down to kiss John briefly, “Thanks for making me conscious for a while” she whispered to him then walked out past the penguin towards the kitchen, “Milk and all the sugar in the house isn’t it?” she asked as she passed.
“Now that is how you treat a house guest!” the penguin nodded.
John sat up in the bed and propped himself against a pillow. “I’m dreaming again then I guess.”
The penguin’s beak curled up into a smile.