a novella by benjamin kerstein

Saturday, September 1, 2007


The technological feasibility of artificial death was already a scientific fact by the mid-twentieth century. The first crude forays into cryogenics were undertaken almost simultaneously with their theoretical plausibility. Despite the popularity of the process as a striking new field of research, and the ghoulish fascination which took hold of popular culture, giving rise, for instance, to the macabre legends surrounding the severed head of Walt Disney, it is now well known that these experiments were a complete failure. The early hopefuls of immortality were all defeated. Most of them by lack of funds. Although a few specimens were thawed when the cure for muscular dystrophy was developed in 2022, it was quickly discovered that tissue decay was as inexorable a process in a frozen state as it was in an embalmed corpse. Albeit a decay of a distinct and different kind. No one in the heady early days of cryogenics guessed that cessation of cellular movement on a molecular level could be as destructive as its opposite.

Nonetheless, the momentum of scientific research was clearly moving towards the arena of non-existence. Techniques of artificial resuscitation and the possibility of a near-infinite prolongation of the physical processes, even in a state of brain-death (the “persistent vegetative state” described in the popular press) demanded new definitions of the concept of non-existence and invited the theoretical possibility of technologically induced immortality. The most obvious and far-reaching implication: that death was no more natural or inevitable a phenomenon than smallpox, occurred to most of the leading authorities on the subject at almost precisely the same moment. Coincidental revelation is a not at all unusual phenomenon in the expansion of human knowledge.

Of all the various phenomena examined in these early stages; cloning, digitized consciousness, the gradual replacement of the physical body with synthetic components; the most fascinating subjects was undoubtedly that of the “near death experience.” A product of modern advances in resuscitation technology, the phenomenon was first noted by paramedics and emergency room doctors, though later studied dew clear parallels to such earlier manifestations as the Apocalypse of John and the works of Hieronymus Bosch. I myself have noted distinct similarities to Poe’s “Arthur Gordon Pym”, although this may simply be a product of Poe’s opium fantasies.

Generally involving feelings of intense euphoria and visions of angelic figures and tunnels of white light recounted by functionally brain dead patients later successfully revived without major damage to cognitive functions, the near death experience was originally considered a subject for New Age fanatics and credulous believers in the paranormal. Nonetheless, a few scientists, albeit quietly, did note the implausibility of the generally accepted scientific explanation: that these visions were the product of a dying brain seeking to ease its own suffering in the face of imminent non-existence. Such a theory, the dissidents claimed, was clearly implausible in patients who were, by definition, brain dead already, although some concessions were made to the possibility of transfer of dream activity to the brain stem in the event of intense trauma. The brain stem is, after all, the last to die, and continues to function even in otherwise persistently vegetative patients. However, no aspect of the conventional wisdom regarding the near death experience, they emphasized, had been scientifically proven.

I cannot speak to the accuracy of the near death experience. My experience is limited to the death experience itself. Nonetheless, the historical importance of the phenomenon cannot be overestimated. It marked the first indication that science was beginning to reach beyond the limits of life.

But these were precursors only. Valintism was the breakthrough. The precipice moment. Like all such moments, it occurred coincidentally. Its implications were understood only years afterwards. I am certain of this. I am one of its implications.

Despite his early training as a neurologist, Doctor Derek Valint had shown no interest in mortality before his discovery. His specialty was severe neuro-psychiatric disorders, especially schizophrenia and dissociative personality. This likely prepared for the possibilities offered by the less than exact sciences.

The limits of psycho-pharmacological therapies were already becoming clear at this time. The late 20th century revolutions in the manipulation of brain chemistry were proving less and less effective in treating advanced forms of mental illness. The long term ineffectiveness of drug therapies was becoming obvious. The conviction was once again growing among the experts that certain disorders of the mind were fundamentally untreatable short of reducing the patient to a vegetable. Such desperate measures as electroshock therapy and lobotomization were once again under serious consideration. Despite the outrage of more humanist members of the scientific community, perpetual confinement was growing in popularity in the courts and the medical community. The situation was reaching a crisis point. Such moments are moments of breakdown or breakthrough. Had he been born twenty years earlier, Doctor Valint would have passed his life in anonymity.

And I would never have existed.

According to legend, the revelation came late one in the Washington laboratories of the National Institutes of Health, where Doctor Valint was employed as a researcher. At seven minutes after midnight, a time to which some would later attribute a certain mystical significance, Doctor Valint’s computer malfunctioned. To be more precise, the X and Z keys exchanged places. That is, when Doctor Valint pressed the X key, a Z appeared on the screen and vice versa. The specialized vocabulary of science demands the use of these letters to an extent far greater than conversational or literary English. As a result, this sudden transmigration left the Doctor more distressed than a layman might at first assume. He could have simply adjusted himself to the situation at hand, but scientists are not noted for their practicality.

Doctor Derek Valint summoned the janitor.

The janitor looked the machine over. Then he reached behind, found the power switch and shut it off. A few minutes later he restarted it. The malfunction had corrected itself.

It was at this point that the light bulb, which always appears in such tales, ignited over Doctor Valint’s head and the obvious occurred to him: total shutdown followed by near instantaneous revival. The implications were astounding.

This legend has maintained its place in the popular consciousness, though its veracity has been largely dismantled by the later revisionists. There can be little doubt that this account of the origins of Orpheus is an urban legend. Doctor Valint’s revelation, and no one denies that it was a revelation, was more likely a slow but steady process leading to a precipice moment. (Again that phrase, laden with irony) As early as 2038 there are cryptic notes in Valint’s diaries referring to a “Eurydice complex” and “the transformational praxis offered by the imminence of resurrection.” The Doctor’s mind was working towards the moment, albeit a moment whose nature was unknown to him at the time.

It is uncontested that the Doctor had received his revelation by 2041, when he received his five year research grant from the NIH. Declared Top Secret and limited to Doctor Valint and his immediate staff, the undertaking was listed as Project Macedon in all official documents. Details were unknown even to Doctor Valint’s NIH superiors. While the revisionists have reliably concluded that they must have run into the millions, funds for the project were not in annual NIH budget reports. Rumors persist, in fact, that the funding came from other sources entirely.

I believe this to be true. I have my own reasons.

The initial synthesis of compounds required over two years to complete, and it has now been reliably established that clinical trials were not begun until 2043. Put in its proper historical context, this is a remarkably swift pace, and it must be assumed that the major theoretical problems had been solved long before Doctor Valint applied for his grant.

This became relevant only after the fact. When Doctor Valint first made his findings public in 2044, it was of interest to no one.

Valint’s official paper was published in the NIH journal as “L61938 and the Significance of Induced Brain Death to the Treatment of Neurological Disorders” and was immediately ranked with Eisentein’s Theory of Special Relativity as one of the most significant single publications in the history of science. Its author did nothing to dispel this conviction.

Like all great scientific theories, synthetic death as a cure for mental illness was essentially simple and based on a briefly stated principle: the reconstitution of the mind via its complete annihilation.

The instrument of annihilation and reconstitution was L61938. Valint and his assistants referred to it as the “black and red.”

We called it something else. Something entirely more appropriate.

Roughly the size of an average painkiller, L61938 was oblong and gel coated. One end of it was red and the other black. Hence its official nickname. The black end of the pill was a compound of synthesized opiates, designed to induce a gradual shutdown of all physical systems, beginning with the extremities, followed by complex thought and voluntary actions, and eventually all cognitive functions and the central nervous system. Within ten minutes, the brain stem ceased to function and the internal organs began to die. Colloquially, this is known as “flatlining.” There was no debate over the fact that it qualified both medically and legally as total brain death.

The red side of the pill was a time-release dose of highly concentrated adrenaline. Within three to five minutes of brain death the adrenaline restarted the heart and shocked the subject back to consciousness. Normal brain activity resumed shortly afterwards.

Reaction to the paper was intense and largely negative. The journal received five hundred and twenty eight emails within the first twenty-four hours of publication. Overwhelmingly, they claimed that Valint’s study raised terrifying ethical questions. Fully sixty percent of the messages accused Valint of violating the fundamental principle of the Hippocratic Oath: “first, do no harm.” It was impossible, they charged, to argue that the induction of death, however synthetic, did not constitute an injury to the patient. The most notorious message was sent by the president of the Columbia University School of Medicine. He called Valint’s technique “the most ghoulish perversion of the medical arts since therapeutic bloodletting.”

He was correct. But no one argues with success.

And success was what Valint displayed to the world on May 15, 2044. Three days after the initial publication of his findings.

Its name was Patient Zero.

The press conference began as a hastily organized attempt at damage control. The reputations of the NIH and Valint himself were on the line. Journalists from the scientific and popular press were flown in at government expense. Prominent members of the scientific community were formally invited. There was a surprisingly large delegation from Japan. A free web cast was available via the NIH website. It collapsed three minutes into the conference due to the massive number of visitor. It was later estimated at nearly seventy-five million, including three from the permanent Russian research station in Antarctica. Valint’s superiors hoped for a manageable disaster.

What they got was a triumph.

About Me

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Benjamin Kerstein is an Israeli-American writer, editor, and novelist.

Michael J. Totten, the prize-winning author of The Road to Fatima Gate, has called him "one of the finest American-Israeli authors of his generation."

Jay Nordlinger of the National Review has referred to his work as "some of the most intelligent, clearest, most honest writing I have read in a long time."

He lives in Tel Aviv.

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