Mark Blythe has jumped on the design fiction bandwagon and written a novel called The Centenarians. Lacking the decency to leave it in a drawer, he is shamelessly sharing the excerpt below. Annabel and Boris Bide, the 100-year-old heroes, are sitting at the desk of a Ministry official ...
“Back to do a special job!” Modell smirked. “A heavy duty but there’s no higher honor at the end of an illustrious career. In the words of the poet and philosopher Stan Lee, ‘With great power comes great implausibility.’ You’ve got the regulation walking stick, of course. Want an upgrade?”
“No, thank you,” said Annabel firmly.
“Sure? The weapons are much improved.”
“Alright, then.” Modell looked disappointed. “Well, I expect you’re wondering what other gadgets we’ve got?”
“Rather!” said Boris. “I expect there’s been some progress since we were last here?”
“Only a bit!” Modell drawled. “Here, for instance,” he took a silver necklace from the desk drawer, “is a lovely little doohickey. At a given code word, it will broadcast video and audio with your location to the nearest law enforcement agency. Basically, it detects—”
“Basically?” Annabel winced. “Do you know, Mr. Modell, I’ve been trying to remember why I found you so very annoying all those years ago.”
“What?” Modell looked surprised and hurt.
“I’m sorry but you must remember I’m over 100 years old,” Annabel put her hand over his, “and that tends to make one rather frank. What’s so annoying about you is your insistent use of the word basically.”
“Yes, it implies that there is a much more complex version of what you’re saying that you’re sure we wouldn’t understand.”
“I see.” Modell seemed abashed. “Well, I’ll try not to use that word. Anyway—” he grinned, “basically, this necklace gives you protection not only when you speak the code word but also when it detects stress or fear.” He swung the pendant back and forth. “And it accounts for context too so it won’t raise a false alarm when you’re having a difficult bowel movement.” He looked at them expectantly.
“My phone can do that,” replied Boris with deep disappointment. “Look, I know the firm doesn’t have the funds it used to but if you’re going to send a couple of geriatrics out on a dangerous mission then surely you can offer something a bit more impressive than this.”
Modell got up and crossed to an old metal cupboard. “Alright, alright, that was just a taster. I can see I’m going to have to up my game.” The cupboard door came off in his hand but he rummaged inside as if he hadn’t noticed and emerged with a small plastic case. “Let’s see if this does anything for you,” he smiled slyly, “instant ocular implants with global voice and face recognition. Basically, you put these in and they’ll tell you everything you need to know about whoever you’re talking to. Everywhere they’ve been, everyone they’ve talked to, what kind of biscuits they like—all instantly searchable with a very discreet blink interface.”
Annabel’s eyebrows shot up to the place where her hair had once been. “For goodness sake! My phone does that as well.”
“Let’s not be hasty, dear.” Boris leaned forward. “This sounds a bit more covert. Might come in handy, you know, when searching for our man, am I right?”
“Eye-wateringly right.” Modell opened the case.
“How does the implant work then?”
“Simplest operation in the world. Look—” Modell took Boris’s face in his hands.
“Really, Boris?” Annabel sighed.
“Now just look straight ahead for me.” Modell held a slim silver cylinder in front of Boris’s left eye. “You’ll feel something like a blast of cold air.” There was a sharp hiss and as Boris blinked in surprise, Modell repeated the operation on the other eye. “There you go. How’s that feel?”
“Fine.” Boris rubbed his eyes. “Oh, I say! I’ve found your data.”
“Yes, the interface should feel quite intuitive. It’s one blink for yes and two for no.”
“I see, so I just blink to say yes to see more of your email?”
“Basically.” Modell smiled proudly.
“Oho!” Boris blinked and stared ahead emptily. “Newly single I see?”
“That’s right!” Modell grinned.
“And I just scroll back by looking this way?” Boris was repeatedly glancing to the left as if trying to draw attention to something in the corner of the room.
“How inconspicuous,” said Annabel.
“Ah! A midlife-crisis poetry book!” Boris blinked his yeses. “Oh, my dear fellow,” he chortled, “this is a bit ripe, isn’t it? Oh wait, I’ve closed it. How am I supposed to stop blinking?”
“You’ll get used to it. Search for something else, like my last blog on the new Barbour phone—it’s scorching stuff.”
“How do you turn it off?” Annabel sighed.
“You squeeze your eyes shut like this for three seconds.” Modell demonstrated.
“No one will suspect a thing.” Annabel looked amused as Boris gurned through a couple of unsuccessful attempts.
“Or it’s easily disguised as rubbing your eyes.” Modell demonstrated again. “Now, Mrs. Bide, would you like a pair?”
Modell’s shoulders sagged but he straightened himself up and tried again.
“Well perhaps I can interest you in this?” He pulled a handbag out of the drawer.
“Protection against the kind of system I’ve just given your husband. Basically, it creates a shield around the user and sends out fake information.”
“Doesn’t that render Boris’s gizmo entirely useless?”
“Well ... yes, but only if the enemy has got one of these. And this is state-of-the-art field equipment!”
“What?” Boris blinked in irritation and blinked again as he tried to close whatever file he had opened. “Oh my God!” he cried, “there are adverts! It’s a bloody ad for Walmart Care Homes! I think perhaps I’ll pass on these after all. Could you take them out please?”
“Ah,” Modell shifted in his seat awkwardly, “that’s a very different and much more complex operation. Requires a specialist, I’m afraid. I could set up an appointment but it will take a few weeks.”
“What!” Boris yelped.
“You don’t have to turn it on; just avoid scrunching your eyes up, that’s all.”
Boris scrunched his eyes and blinked while Modell made reassuring noises.
“Are these silly toys really all you have to offer us?” Annabel tutted.
“What were you hoping for,” Modell drooped, “jet packs and laser guns?”
“Something useful and practical!” Annabel snapped, “like a jumper.”
“Well,” Modell went back to the cupboard uncertainly, “we do have these new body stockings.” He pulled out two swathes of material that reflected the light in strange fractal patterns.
“And what do they do,” Annabel asked sourly, “make a report to central office if we’re feeling disillusioned?”
“Well, basically they give the same sort of support as heavy-lifting exoskeletons. They’re very light but incredibly strong and they mould to your body to compensate where weakness is detected. We’ve had agents survive major explosions in these. The material reacts to changes in velocity. The inner layer forms a cushion and the outer shell hardens into armor if you’re thrown by a blast.”
“Or fall over in the kitchen?”
“Now you’re talking!” Annabel felt the material. “Why didn’t you show us this in the first place? We’ll take them!” She leaned forward confidentially. “And there I was thinking you were useless, basically.”
Modell smiled modestly. “Basically, perhaps, but not entirely.”
Mark Blythe is professor of interdisciplinary design at Northumbria University.
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