click me for larger, more complete image...

Reading Upstream

by Aidan O'Keefe


"Is he insane?"

LaFort emerged from his thoughts and looked up at the holographic image of the assistant district attorney floating towards him from across the courtroom.

"Doctor, is he insane?" the image asked him again, this time more curtly.

LaFort struggled with his pad to find the conclusion of his report. His fingers stumbled over the buttons for a few seconds until he found the paragraph he wanted.

"I would diagnose the subject as suffering from acute anti-technology psychosis within the legal definition of Section 12 of the Colonial ATP Act," he finally said.

The DA nodded. He gave LaFort a look as his image moved back towards its "seat" in the holographic courtroom. The DA was not happy. LaFort could look forward to yet another talk with the Justice Ministry about his lacklustre courtroom performance.

LaFort was sitting in a holographically created courtroom maintained by the Martian First Circuit Colonial Supreme Court. The chairs, the tables, the judge's bench and even the 16-star Martian flag were all computer generated. The images of the DA, the judge and the clerk were real. The holographic court allowed each to appear in the same place even though they were spread out across the planet. LaFort himself was testifying from his office in New Chicago. The judge and the DA were in the capital and the defense counsel was appearing from off-world.

LaFort had been called in on the case only two days ago -- not very much time to interview the subject and write his report. It was typical of the way anti-tech cases were being handled these days. The authorities were in a rush to push them through the courts. The subject had been arrested during a raid on an anti-tech house on the outskirts of Olympic Mons. The police robots had caught him with a handful of anti-tech literature.

LaFort remembered their first interview at the psychiatric center. The subject was like many anti-tech patients he had seen. He looked sane enough, with a mop of black hair and a pleasant, earnest looking face. He almost had to remind himself that the man was suffering from a crippling and potentially dangerous mental illness. But that was anti-tech.

For years the disease had been more of an interesting abnormality worthy of study by sociologists rather than a mental illness to be diagnosed by psychiatrists. Scientists had studied the disease as they would an odd new strain of fungus. Anti-techs had been thought of as harmless nuts by most people and few, if any, ever listened to their ravings about the enslavement of society by technology. People would laugh as they saw anti-techs preaching on street corners and holding one-person demonstrations outside the Martian Parliament.

That changed as the numbers of cases grew. The presence of such "dead weight", as the vid-media called it, on a technology-driven society such as the one on Mars had been alarming to many. Overnight, the anti-techs were branded a menace to society. LaFort thought the reaction was a bit hysterical. Anti-techs were mentally ill, but essentially harmless. Society didn't share his views, however. Anti-tech legislation had been brought down on Earth and on all four colonies. Anti-techs were now being rounded up by the police. Those diagnosed with the disease were committed indefinitely to a mental health facility.

As a result, LaFort -- one of only two human psychiatrists on Mars with the proper qualifications -- was kept rather busy. The law said the subject had to be diagnosed by a local human psychiatrist and that ruled out mental health robots or vid-linked specialists off-world.

"What's going to happen to me?" the subject, a man from Canal City West, had asked him nervously as the interview got started. He was young, the youngest LaFort had ever seen in all his anti-tech work. He was just 19.

"That's not for me to decide. I'm just here to examine you, to help you," LaFort had said in his best clinical voice as he sat down. He remembered looking at the man and feeling sorry for him. It wasn't his fault that anti-tech had become the political scapegoat flavour of the month.

The goal of the interview was simple. All he had to do was establish some element of anti-tech paranoia. Even the slightest delusion about turning off the vid-phone was enough under the statutes to have the man committed. LaFort thought the law to be too excessive, but it had its advantages. If he asked the right questions he could get the interview over quickly and get on with the next one.

"I understand you were in an anti-tech house when you were arrested. What were you doing there?" LaFort had begun.

The subject shrugged. "I...I was just there visiting a friend, that was all," he had said nervously. One of the pads in front of LaFort started blinking. The subject was lying.

"This friend. Is he an anti-tech?" LaFort asked.

"No." He shook his head, then added in a small voice, "Maybe, I don't know".

LaFort saw an opening. "Do you know what goes on in anti-tech houses?" The subject's eyes darted this way and that. He crossed his arms nervously, but said nothing.

"I'll tell you, since you were just visiting and don't know." As the subject listened, looking more and more nervous by the minute, LaFort continued.

"The rooms are bare. There is no furniture, no tables or chairs. It's quiet. You can't hear a sound. There's no one talking, no vid-phone, no screens, no information channels, nothing. There are no robots or computers. It's like closing your eyes and putting your hands over your ears," LaFort said slowly.

The subject nodded. LaFort had his attention. "Why do you think that your friend would want to be in a place like that?" he asked.

The subject shrugged again. "Maybe...maybe he likes it that way," the subject said searching for the words.

"Why would that be?" LaFort asked.

"Maybe all that information, that noise, the pictures...maybe it's too much for him," he said. LaFort nodded and said nothing, forcing the subject to fill silence.

"All that information...all those images and sounds on all the time," the subject said coming a bit out of his shell. "It's not real."

LaFort nodded again. He was making progress. "Tell me more," he said.

The subject thought for a moment. "Maybe my friend wants something more."

"More?" asked LaFort carefully. "What more could he possibly want? He doesn't have to work or go to school if he doesn't want to. He can play games or party with his friends or take mood enhancers or go to the sex palace...He can do whatever he wants, whenever he wants. What more could he ask for?"

The subject looked at his feet. LaFort knew he was getting through to him.

"Maybe doing whatever you want isn't enough, sometimes...for my friend, that is," the subject said, not looking at LaFort.

"Really? I don't understand. For centuries humankind has been striving to create a society where people can devote themselves to art, love, poetry and the like. I'd say we've achieved that, wouldn't you?" LaFort said.

The subject nodded. Good, LaFort thought. Then, "Why would your friend reject that?" he asked.

"I don't know," the subject said as he unfolded his arms and looked his hands.

"I think you do," LaFort said gently. "Tell me."

The subject looked up at LaFort. His mouth opened to say something and then closed. He was struggling to speak.

"It's not real. It's a make believe world," he said. "There is no art, no love, no poetry. There's just sex and drugs. There's no thinking, just reacting. That's not living. We have's the's..." the subject said.

"'s enslaving us," LaFort said, finishing the subject's sentence.

"Yes," the subject said leaning forward. He was beginning to break.

"I...he wants to turn it all off. He wants to be free."

The subject stood up. It was all coming out of him like a dam had burst. "The house. He...I just sat there and thought about nothing for two whole hours," he said.

He looked back at LaFort. "There was this girl. Her name was Laura. She was beautiful. We didn't have sex like I was at one of the pleasure domes. We just talked. We talked about our favourite colors," the subject said, laughing to himself as he remembered the experience.

"She was reading a book. It was an old-fashioned paper book. We read it together and we pictured the story in our minds. There were no holographic images, no 3-D vids you could just step into. It was all up here inside my head. It was unlike anything I'd ever experienced. It was natural," he said trying so hard to explain.

LaFort nodded.

"Technology is making our life a's like it's controlling us. I've never felt so alive,, human by being a..." The subject stopped. One look at LaFort's face was enough for him to realize that he had said too much.

LaFort had enough to make a diagnosis for committal. He easily packaged the vid clips of the subject into a report for the court. It had all been too simple. He got ready to leave.

"You think I'm insane," the subject said wearily.

LaFort stopped and looked at the man with pity. He was mentally ill, but he didn't deserve what was going to happen to him. "I think you need help," LaFort said firmly. "You'll get it where you're going."

The subject looked up at him with anguish in his eyes. LaFort decided to say something comforting.

"One day, you'll look back on this as a sort of vid-dream. You'll soon be back at home playing your favorite holo-adventure or seeing your friends at the pleasure dome. This will all be over," LaFort said as reassuringly as he could.

Despite his lacklustre court performance, the hearing went quickly and the judgment was swift. The court ordered the subject committed to the care of the Colonial Mental Health Board. If he was lucky and didn't fight the treatment he would be literally a new man in less than a year with no memories of his previous illness or anything else for that matter.

LaFort thought about it as he sat in his apartment that evening. His friends wanted to go to the pleasure dome, but he had lied and said he had too much work. Being one of the only people who actually worked these days gave him license to spend time by himself.

On a whim, he told the house computer to turn the vid-wall off. He muted the phone and the door bell and turned the lights down low. LaFort retrieved his briefcase and put it on the table. He fished around inside for a minute looking for some evidence material he was studying for a case.

He carefully lifted the item he was looking for out of the bag and held it up to the one light that was on in the room. LaFort looked at the writing on the old faded paper pages for a few moments and then closed his eyes.*


Story copyright © 1999 by Aidan O'Keefe, pen name of John C. Suart <>

Artwork '"Read Up!" copyright © 1999 by Lee Ward <>






Planet Magazine Home