The Restoration of William: the skeleton of a short story about resurrection and identity

by AlanCrowe2 min read15th Nov 20139 comments


Personal Blog

Bill died. He never liked having dumps done. Each year he would make excuses, put it off. "Next year." he would say. Only after Bill's death do people realise just how long this has been going on for: thirty years. They will have to restore Bill from a 30 year old tape. Is "restore" even the right word? How about "roll-back"?

Worse still, there was a big change in Bill's life 25 years ago when he had a mid-life crisis. He joined a personal growth cult, dropped old friends, made new ones. Some of his new friends can remember encounters with the old Bill of 30 years ago. They didn't like him and avoided him. There was a lot of friction when he joined the personal growth cult 5 years later. Some members wanted to black ball him. You cannot teach an old dog new tricks. It might be true, but the personal growth cult could hardly admit it.

Those who dreaded Bill's return had a week of respite when it seemed that Bill's tape had been lost. Lost? Bill really dead and gone for ever? That was unthinkable. Losing some-ones only back up tape would be a huge scandal. Who would stake their life with a careless archiving company?

After an increasingly panicky search it was found. Found! And still readable, after all those years, with a bit of manual fixing of uncorrectable errors.

Restored Bill woke to find 30 years had gone by. When we think back to what we were like 30 years ago, we do so as a process of diffs. What changed last year. What changed the year before that. What changed between two and three years ago. So when we think back to what changed between year 29 and year 30 and find we cannot remember, what are we to do? No doubt there were a whole years worth of changes, but not knowing what they were, we are seduced by the lazy assumption that they didn't amount to much. Restored Bill did not have the option of making lazy assumptions. He had 30 years of change dumped on him. The genuine article, the whole ka-boodle, with little relation to the convenient fictions that human memory embroiders over 30 years of telling, forgetting, patching and re-telling.

People who remembered disliking Bill 30 years ago were never-the-less sympathetic to the bewildered and pathetic figure, uncertain who and when he was.  Phoning close friends to continue yesterday's conversation only to suffer them denying having know him was distressing. It wasn't people deny knowing him in retaliation for a falling out 25 years previously. It was worse than that. How many of your old friends from 30 years ago have you completely forgotten about? You'll soon find that you cannot remember any-one who you have completely forgotten about. The difference between tautology and fact is about a dozen dear old friends.

Restored Bill was struggling to cope with a huge disruption to the natural order of things. Was he acting out of character? Some of deceased Bill's new friends and some of his old friends tried the trick of getting a temporary hologram made from their own 30 year old dump tapes so that they could ask about Restored Bill. As usual this was a distressing experience as the hologram of ones old self turns out to be incompatible with ones own self image and personal narrative. People seeking an explanation for why Restored Bill was different from how they remembered him found instead a question: why were they so different from how they remembered themselves?

One reason was that "hologram" is a rather nasty euphemism, coined to disguise the harsh reality of the law that says "There can be only one." A "hologram" is actually a freshly down loaded flesh and blood person who must be euthanised after the consultation to ensure that there is only ever one copy of a person. The "hologram" is the origin of two genres of fiction. In the hologram-horror one is invited to share the chill of waking up and realising that one is only temporary with but an hour to live. In the hologram-thriller a copy of you has escaped and must be hunted down and killed before he can infiltrate society and impersonate you. There can be only one. If he succeeds you will die in his place, but he knows all about you, he is you!

So the hologram hasn't revolutionised the study of history in the way that you might at first imagine. A history student might try asking a hologram about the past, but pretty soon the hologram realises his predicament and lapses into sullen despair.

No such problem for Restored Bill. Previous Bill was dead and Restored Bill was the one. It all worked out right in the end. Restored Bill learned to rub along with most of deceased Bill's social circle, and the "clerical error" that had actually restored Fred-minus30 never came to light. Current Fred never learned against whom his deep loathing of Restored Bill was truly directed.


9 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 3:12 PM
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Wait, who is Fred?

As I understood the story, the personality whom everyone thinks of as Bill from 30 years ago is actually some other guy, Fred, from 30 years ago, and mysteriously nobody notices, because the story depends on that to make some kind of point about identity.

The actions of the main participants are consistent with their incentives. The owners of the archiving company dodge scandal and ruin by covering up the fact that they have lost Bill's tape "That was unthinkable.". The employees of the archiving company play along with doctoring Fred-minus30's tape "with a bit of manual fixing of uncorrectable errors." and get to keep their jobs.

Fred-minus30 faces the harsh reality of the law that says "There can be only one." He has read his share of hologram-horror and hologram-thriller. He can blow the whistle on the cover-up and say "actually I'm not Bill, I'm a duplicate of some-one living." Whoops! That makes him the soon-to-be-euthanised of a hologram-horror. Or maybe he can try being the escaped hologram of a hologram-thriller by slipping away and murdering Current-Fred and replacing him. But Fred-minus30 is 30 years behind. That will totally not work. So Fred-minus30 faces strong incentives to play along and do his best job of impersonating long forgotten Bill.

mysteriously nobody notices

In the story people notice. They notice and do some serious digging. But what are their incentives? What are they digging for? Once they have dug up interesting stuff from their personal histories that they can chat about with their friends, they stop digging.

Thinking about the above some more...

Phoning close friends to continue yesterday's conversation only to suffer them denying having know him was distressing.

How did Fred know the names and phone numbers of Bill's close friends from 30 years ago to call them, especially when they themselves didn't remember knowing Bill back then, and why was it distressing to him when they denied knowing Bill? Under the circumstances, I should think he'd be relieved.

Ah. I'd thought the idea was that everyone (including Fred) thought Fred was Bill, which seemed implausible. But sure, if instead Fred is simply lying, then given the discontinuity in Fred's social life, it's not implausible that none of Fred's friends notice. (If Bill had been a hermit for the last 30 years and interacted with nobody at all, similar things are true.)

It is hard to convince somebody of something when their survival depends on them not getting it.

The fraudulent restoration company had edited the mind of Fred-30 so that he thought that his name was Bill, and that some other publicly known information was what it would have been if he was Bill instead of Fred, and then they had put the edited mind in a body that resembled Bill-30 to whatever degree restored people were supposed to resemble their previous selves. But his not easily edited memories, such as any memories of experiences, were those of Fred-30.

Or to be precise they were confabulations reconciling what Fred actually remembered 30 years (or however old that tape actually were) ago with the information that had been added later. But that is how all our memories work anyway, so it would be weird if he noticed that.

The fraudulent restoration company had edited the mind of Fred-30 so that he thought that his name was Bill

OK, thanks for clarifying that.

As story skeletons go, this is a pretty good one; I think it could be made into an interesting story.

So, are you planning to flesh it out?

My health is very poor. A fleshed out version might run to 25 000 words. I'm not going to manage that. Worse than that, I don't really know how to write. They say one needs to write a million words to be any good, so the full project, learn to write, then come back and flesh it out, runs to 1 025 000 words.

Please have a go at fleshing it out yourself.

Even if you never publish it, you will have to commit to views about personal identity and how and well it survives the passage of decades. Perhaps, in thirty years time, you will rediscover your completed manuscript. You would get to look back at yourself looking forward and both compare who you are with who you thought you would become and compare the person you remembered with the author of the text. Have fun keeping track of how many of you there are.