© 2018 Robert Snyder
A long goodbye
In the 20th century, humans had feared that a cataclysmic event like nuclear war or an asteroid colliding with Earth would bring about their demise. In the 21st century, they panicked when computer models predicted catastrophic climate change. The real threat, when it arrived, was much more prosaic.
The end did not come quickly. It took more than two centuries for the pathology to play itself out. It’s impossible for us today to imagine the utter vacantness those still alive toward the end must have felt.
An indication that something was wrong appeared early in the 23rd Century when birth rates began to plummet. Fewer and fewer people opted to reproduce. Children were a lot of work, unless you were a billionaire and could afford a Machine to take care of them. Moreover, potential parents simply had no idea what they’d even do with a child if they had one. Teach it to eat? Watch it grow, like a potted plant? There was nothing for it to do, and there never would be. It was pointless. So women had their fallopian tubes tied, and men had vasectomies. Average family size for households with adults of childbearing age was 2.1 in 2200, 2.02 in 2250 and 2.009 in 2300, before adjusting for suicides. By 2350, it had dropped to 2.00006.
For the few who still reproduced, the child (rarely did a woman have more than one) was little more than a house pet. The parents gave it food, water and shelter, but their capacity to love it (or each other, or themselves) had greatly diminished.
By 2250, the suicide rate had reached an alarming level.
Human health declined precipitously, despite the enormous advances Machines had made in human medicine. By 2300, average human body weight had grown to nearly triple the 2200 average. For most biological humans, practically the only exercise their bodies got was during sex, which became less and less frequent as the human sex drive waned.
Alcohol and drug abuse became epidemic. Distillers and the manufacturers of recreational drugs—which had been legal for decades—were hard pressed to keep up with demand. In 2315, a recreational drug called “PFFFT” caused more than four million suicides. More significant still was the effect the epidemic had on biological humans in general. By 2350, more than 95% of them were addicted to alcohol and/or drugs. They were killing themselves in waves.
By 2364, all of the remaining schools had closed, including the boarding schools and the formerly elite universities. Teachers as well as students had lost interest. There was no point.
The only bright spot was that crimes of passion no longer occurred.
New York City streets no longer bore any resemblance to the streets, teeming with life, that Keisha had walked with Amelia and Mr. Weinberg. Fifth Avenue and Times Square were dead, the stock exchanges no longer existed, and all of New York’s hotels and restaurants had closed—even delicatessens! Parks were covered with litter and filled with addicts (some still alive, others dead from overdoses). Machine police still made their patrols, but the streets were nearly deserted. There were no taxis, buses or subway trains, and the airports had been closed except for the private terminals that served the billionaires.
It was the same throughout the world.
Keisha and Weinberg 2.0 went for daily walks, studying the people and trying to figure out what was happening. New Yorkers—the few they encountered—were like zombies. Their eyes were dead.
Weinberg 2.0 would approach a person and ask how he or she was doing, and Keisha would record their response, if any. In 2335, she recorded responses like “Good,” “Yep” and “Fuck you,” usually spoken in flat, emotionless voices. By 2369, people just stared at them vacantly and made no response.
Flatbeds swept past them constantly, loaded with the bodies of suicide victims. This must be what the siege of Leningrad was like during World War II, Keisha thought. Except that now, this was what the biological humans wanted. They embraced death.
They visited Dr. Darnell Robinson, a psychologist friend of the Weinberg family, and described their sidewalk experiences. Robinson was a biological human.
“It’s like an epidemic of clinical depression,” said Keisha
“I would call it ‘clinical apathy,’” said Robinson. “They’ve lost their human spirit. People survived times that were infinitely worse.”
“You may be right, Darnell,” said Weinberg 2.0, “but to me it looks more like despair than mere apathy. There’s no precedent for this. For generations, humans have had nothing to do, no challenges they needed to meet. Nothing. Mentally and spiritually, they’re bankrupt. You’re right, people have had to endure things that were much, much worse in many ways. Slavery. Concentration camps. But this is different. There’s no enemy. There’s nothing to mentally fight back against. Their world is flat-out empty. It’s a vacuum. No one has ever had to experience this.”
Robinson considered this. “Well, when you put it that way, it reminds me of the 20th- and 21st-Century studies that documented the mental illness that resulted from the prolonged solitary confinement of prisoners. You’re right. People aren’t built to sit and do nothing, in a state of nothingness.”
“There’s a life force in people that wants to do things, to accomplish things,” said Weinberg 2.0, “but it has nothing to operate on now. It has nowhere to turn. This is what I think makes them suicidal.”
“Keep working, Darnell,” said Keisha. “It’s what’s keeping you alive!”
“You’re probably right, Keisha,” he said, “but I’m running out of patients.”
Weinberg 2.0 and Keisha decided to stop by the St. Theresa Mission in Little Italy, which, prior to the enactment of a guaranteed income for the unemployed, had provided food and shelter to people who did not have it. They had combined that with gently delivered religious messages of hope. Nowadays, the latter was their only mission. Weinberg 2.0 and Keisha had taken the Mission under their wing and kept it going after traditional charitable organizations had withered away.
“How’s it going,” Weinberg 2.0 asked his friend, Father Mike, who, like Robinson, was a biological human.
“It’s a tough sell. When we tell them God loves them and will take them to Him when they die, they’re like, ‘Why wait?’ Sometimes I feel like I’m encouraging suicide.”
“Isn’t suicide a mortal sin in your church?” Keisha asked.
“It used to be. But modern Christian thought takes the position that God will understand when a person commits suicide to escape a life that he or she lacks the strength to bear. Work done by psychologists contributed to this change of view. The example usually used is a terminal cancer patient suffering unbearable pain. She’s about to die anyway. So why wait?”
Father Mike sighed.
“Based on the wave of suicides, it’s obvious that life has become unbearable for many, many people,” he said. “All I can offer them is the next life. I can’t think of anything to tell them that would give them a reason to stay here in this one. I have to admit, sometimes I wonder myself.”
When People magazine finally folded in 2301, no one missed it.
Even billionaires succumbed to the “Malaise,” a term coined by the psychologist Carolyn Geller, who’d studied and written about the phenomenon in North America before committing suicide herself.
Keisha found the billionaires’ predicament similar to that of a character in an episode of a 20th Century television show, The Twilight Zone, that Keisha had seen as a rerun. As she remembered the episode, the character, a professional pool player, had died and somehow realized he was dead. He found himself in a room with a pool table and began to play. To his delight, every shot sent one or more balls into the pockets. He ran the table every time. So this is heaven, he thought. But it wasn’t long before he realized he was in the other place. Pool had been his life; he’d loved the challenge and the thrill of winning. Here, in this place, pool was meaningless. If you automatically won every game, there was no point.
Judging by their suicide rate, the emptiness hit the billionaires hardest of all, perhaps because they’d been raised and led to expect something of life and of themselves. H. Charles Rusk IX, history’s richest biological human, killed himself on October 13, 2385.
Ruling classes and elites throughout the world succumbed to the Malaise along with everyone else.
A Class (1) human who deigned to speak to Keisha during this period told her he felt sorry for Machines. “If I had to live like this forever I’d go nuts,” he told her.
Biological humans realized what was happening but were powerless to stop it.
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