Mum2 refused to get bitten. “Clones are people too. We have rights.”
“We?” said Pi.
That’s when Mum2 introduced Mum3, Mum4 and Mum5.
Today’s story is from someone who wishes to remain anonymous. I’ll call him/her Gertrude Versnickered.
Let me know if there are formatting issues, and I’ll correct them.
Dr. Beth Mannix didn’t often feel jealous of other people.
She was a highly successful psychologist, an authority in her field. That very week, her latest book was sitting high in the bestseller lists.
But the man currently sitting in her office seemed to be an exception to most rules.
James Pitt wasn’t much to look at – unusually tall, lanky in the bad way, and with a face that only a camel’s mother could love – but that didn’t matter.
Every test that could be done confirmed that this man was a genius beyond compare.
“I was wondering if maybe we could discuss your childhood experiences,” she began, trying to keep her voice as amiably neutral as possible.
He snorted irritably.
It was obvious that he didn’t think he should be here.
The court had felt otherwise.
“You seem to have been an excellent student – no, an exceptional student – while you were in primary school. What do you think changed when you entered high school?” she asked.
He sighed, as if he was tired of giving the same answer. “Nothing changed,” he finally said. “Except that people began copying me.”
Beth was ready for his response. “On every essay, every single assignment, someone would copy you?”
She looked him in the eyes. “But, in many cases, the other person could prove that they had written their paper first…”
“Okay,” she continued, examining the file on her desk. “Let’s talk about the things that have happened since then.”
He continued to stare at his feet, disinterested.
“Your high school grades were extremely low because your teachers believed your work to be plagiarised and marked you according. But, nevertheless, you still managed to get into university after impressing countless people with your intellect. You dropped out almost immediately. Why?”
He said nothing.
“I have here a report from one of your tutors. It says that your work, while highly original, invariably bore an uncanny resemblance to at least one other student’s. It was never an exact word-for-word copy, but generally shared the title, structure, central argument, and much of the phrasing of their work.”
If she was hoping for a response, then she was disappointed.
“After that you became a journalist. You impressed publishers so much with the quality of your work that you were, almost immediately, placed on the staff of some of the most successful publications in the world. You were taken off again just as quickly after it was discovered that your stories were always almost identical to one being written by a rival reporter.
“Again and again and again, James, the same pattern emerges. When you were a painter, a composer, a screenwriter, a biochemist, a sculptor, a novelist, a theoretical physicist, an industrial designer… the list goes on and on… no matter what the field. You showed a truly remarkable talent for it – no one has ever challenged the brilliance of your work, even while they were suing you over it. It’s just that you seem to have a compulsive need to borrow other people’s ideas.”
Beth gave him her most experienced look of compassion. “Everyone I’ve talked to has told that you are an actual genius, James. I’ve seen samples of your work, and I was amazed. You could do so much, you could be an unprecedented success in any field that you want, if you could just learn to keep to your own ideas.
“I want to help you, James. But it’s hard for me to do that unless you admit that you have a problem.”
But no longer seemed to be paying attention – instead, he was staring fixedly at a biro that he had picked off her desk.
Slowly, he began to unscrew the lid.
Beth felt a stab of frustration.
Did he not realise what he was? There were only a few people like him born every century. True Renaissance Men; people who could excel in anything.
And this was her own field of expertise: people with compulsive self-defeating behaviour.
Normally she only dealt with dismal people – like Garry Wilas – she had spent years trying to lift that cackling pyromaniac out of his deranged militaristic fantasies.
She knew that James was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for her, and she wasn’t going to blow it. No matter how much time or effort she had to put into his therapy.
So he didn’t respond well to the direct approach – okay, most didn’t. She’d just have to think of another…
He was talking.
“Terrible design, this,” he remarked casually, surveying the autopsied remains of her pen. “Look, it would be so simple to improve…”
Beth smiled to herself as she listened to his offhand explanation of an alternative pen design. He went deeply into the improvements in function, aesthetics, and ease of manufacture that could result from a simple design change.
If only she could convince him to go with ideas of his own, like this one, then her job would be done.
The rest of their first session seemed to go quite well. Beth had decided to use a casual, conversational style instead, and that seemed to work much better – James opened up a lot more. The subjects of his remarks were remarkably wide-ranging; he even spent a considerable chunk of time talking about how her receptionist could improve her hair style.
On her way home, Beth continued to thrash out a treatment strategy.
The rest of her day had been normal enough – including the long, unhelpful session with Garry in which he had gleefully explained five different methods by which he could kill her using only her stapler.
She was walking up to her front door, key in hand, when she heard a gasp behind her.
“I’m sorry,” the girl smiled shyly. “But you’re Dr. Mannix, aren’t you?”
Without waiting for an answer, the stranger reached into her rucksack and pulled out a well-thumbed copy of Beth’s latest book, Self-Destruct Systems Active! – an overview of self-defeating behaviour.
“Why, yes,” Beth replied, feeling slightly flattered.
The girl grinned shyly. “Um, would it be okay if I asked you to sign it?” she asked, pulling out a pen.
She gushed adorably as Beth signed her book, saying how clever it was and how much it had changed her life and how she was going to recommend it to all of her friends.
Beth finished signing, thinking to herself that everyone should have at least one encounter like this during their lives. As she handed the book back, the girl suddenly got a thoughtful look on her face. “Where do get your ideas from?” she asked.
For a moment, Beth was going to chuckle politely, but she stopped herself when she saw the completely earnest look on the girl’s face.
The question was now such a cliché that it was only ever asked as a joke, but it seemed this stranger was actually asking it seriously, expecting an answer.
Beth stared at her for an instant, not sure what to say.
How could she say where her ideas came from? Where do any ideas come from?
When you were on the verge of sleep, or in the shower, or lying in the tub – whenever your mind was at its most relaxed and receptive – ping! They would just appear.
“Oh, just thinking about different things, I suppose,” Beth finally said, laughing amiably.
A week later, at his next session, James was much more relaxed.
Her unease had begun the day after their first session. Coming into work, she had noticed her receptionist examining her radical new hairstyle in a little mirror.
It had seemed somehow familiar.
She had been extremely proud when Beth had commented on it, and told her she had thought of it herself. Apparently, the idea had just suddenly come to her the previous afternoon.
Beth complemented her on her taste – it really did look very nice – but, looking at it, she couldn’t help but feel a certain strange shiver of recognition.
Walking down the street the next day, she had seen the new hairstyle again. And again. And again. Eventually, and with careful casualness, she had asked one of the women about it. They had been obviously flattered and had told her that it was their own design. It seems she’d just been on the way to the hairdressers and the idea had just suddenly popped into her head.
That morning, as Beth had been reading her paper over breakfast, her eye had fallen on a photograph of various starlets walking down the red carpet. Their hair was all done up in the same, apparently very trendy, way. It looked awfully familiar.
She quickly glanced away, feeling that same strange shiver, and her eye happened to fall across a small story in the corner. Apparently, the previous week, every major pen company in the world had announced plans to make a slight alteration to the traditional design of their pens. The article described this briefly, explaining the improvements in function, aesthetics, and ease of manufacture that it had been decided would result from this simple change. However, given the remarkable similarity of the planned modifications, lawsuits had now been filed in an attempt to determine who had precedence.
Beth’s attention was suddenly jolted back to the session.
“I’m sorry,” she said, smiling. “What did you say?”
“Oh, nothing important,” James said. He looked off for a second, as if lost in thought. “Oh, I read that book of yours,” he finally remarked.
“What did you think of it?” Beth asked. In spite of herself, she was genuinely curious.
He shrugged. “It was good, well-written… but to be honest, I thought that some of your conclusions were a bit simplistic.” He got that thoughtful look again. “You seem to assume that self-defeating actions are necessarily a learned response, even though a number of neurobiological effects – such as those seen in Lysch-Nyhan syndrome – are known to induce similar behaviour.”
He was silent for a moment, his brows knitted in thought.
Then he suddenly brightened. “Perhaps a better way to view it would be…”
But Beth didn’t hear him. She felt something like an explosion in her mind as, all of a sudden, the most amazingly complete, ground-breaking theory of self-destruction burst into her consciousness.
It was so simple! So elegant! She couldn’t believe that she hadn’t thought of it before!
She was almost gasping, barely able to contain her desire to run to her computer and begin taking down notes.
James didn’t seem to notice, he just went on talking.
Beth forced her mind back to what he was saying, and suddenly froze.
Over the next ten minutes he explained her new theory to her, in great detail and using exactly the same words with which she had thought it. He was very casual in his explanation; after all, it was just the latest of perhaps hundreds of ideas which he had thought of that morning alone.
Beth, very calmly, made an excuse and ended the session early.
Beth had to fight the almost irresistible urge to begin work on her next, revolutionary, book – the one in which she would explain this amazing new theory.
But, instead, she made herself log onto the internet to research something quite different.
The phenomenon is commonly known as the ‘zeitgeist’, a German word meaning ‘Spirit of the Age’. It generally refers to the tendency for new ideas to appear independently of each other in different places at almost exactly the same time.
Beth learned that there had been legal action between Newton and Leibniz over which of them had invented Calculus first. She learned that a week after Einstein published his Special Theory of Relativity, another physicist named Hendrik Lorentz had a paper printed containing an almost identical idea. She discovered that no matter how hard you looked, it was almost impossible to discover who had actually been behind any major invention. Radio, the telephone, jet engines, television, the car… there was never just a single inventor, but rather a large number of people seemed to have almost simultaneously begun work on remarkably similar devices. The final invention was almost always a fusion of all of their innovations.
And it wasn’t just in the sciences that you saw it.
Mark Twain once wrote an article on the phenomenon after noticing that whenever he suddenly had a brilliant story idea, he would later find that one of his friends had the same idea, on the same day. Often the results were the same down to the character names.
Wandering into the realm of pseudoscience, Beth read about controversial experiments in which teaching one rat to run a certain maze caused different rats in different labs to run identical mazes faster. She read about a group of anthropologists who had claimed to have observed that, after a monkey had learned to eat a potato – something that it had never seen before – in a particular way, every subsequent monkey that they encountered immediately and instinctively began to eat it in the that way too.
Even if they lived on a different island.
Beth came across things like ‘Morphogenetic Field Theory’ and ‘The 300th Monkey Hypothesis’ – different, strange names for the same, strange idea. The idea that every species has a kind of ‘group soul’ – an aether in which thoughts, dreams – ideas – could wander free of their creator and be ensnared by the receptive mind of another person.
Beth sat back, her head reeling.
How many new ideas appear in a year? Good, truly original ideas?
A hundred? A thousand?
Could it be possible, maybe, just maybe, that every age had a handful of people like James – brilliant, truly original people – who, somehow, between themselves…
She sighed and switched off her computer, rubbing at her eyes.
She knew that she wouldn’t be able to resist beginning her new book for much longer. She would have to talk to James about it, offer to share credit with him.
After all, it had been his idea…
She gasped to herself as she realised what she had just thought.
Garry Wilas chuckled to himself.
Dr. Mannix seemed to be particularly distracted today, he didn’t think that she’d heard a word that he’d said all day.
Which was probably for the best…
He grinned as his mind slipped back to the story that he’d read in the paper that morning. The one about the ‘quiet, reserved’ man who’d suddenly and for no obvious reason murdered five people, in five different ways, using only a stapler.
That sort of thing was always happening to him – every killing, every attack, every war that he’d read about over the last few years always seemed to bear an incredible similarity to one of his little daydreams.
Why, if he didn’t know better, he might think that people were somehow getting their ideas from him…
Suddenly Garry gasped, his eyes widening, as the most amazing idea suddenly occurred to him.
It was incredible – bigger than everything else he’d ever thought of put together! His breath came in ragged little patches as he began to salivate at the thought of destruction on such a scale…
Why, if an idea like this one ever got out…