The Persistence of Tim
Matthew F. Amati
I repair artificial spouses.
My shingle reads “Synthi Repairs – No Questions Asked. We Fix Everything.”
They make male Synthis, and they make female ones. Most are bought by the lonely, but too many, usually females, are purchased by the cruel. I fix many more female Synthis than males.
Today my favorite Synthi called to tell me her old man-trouble was back. My heart wobbled when I heard Annie’s voice.
“Oh god, Mr. Marcus, you won’t believe it. Tim’s back from the War.”
“After ten years? I thought he’d been killed in the Lyra Massacre.”
“They never found a body. That’s why I wasn’t recycled. There was still the possibility of a husband out there.”
“A husband who beat you, Annie. So badly, I think I’ve fixed every circuit and servo inside you at some point.”
And that’s why I loathe even the name ‘Tim,’ Annie. Thanks to your Lieutenant Timothi Krankheit. Can’t get away with abusing a real woman, so he buys himself a Synthi. Law doesn’t protect machines.
Annie sighed. “It’s his right. As my purchaser, owner, husband.”
“His right doesn’t make it right. So what’d he do this time? If he cracked your braincase again, I can glue it.”
“He hasn’t touched me. Yet. No sign of his old anger. There’s something else I need, Mr. Marcus.”
You need me to hold you close, Annie, to tell you it’s all right, that even though you’re a machine, you’re exquisite in a way no human woman could be. I’ve repaired everything from your bruised knees to your shaken, fluttering heart. I know you better than anyone.
“I’m not certain that this man who’s returned is really my Tim.”
I made a surprised noise. “You think he’s an impostor?”
“It’s hard for a Synthi to tell these things. We don’t see the way you do, Mr. Marcus. We distinguish by analysis, not by appearances. I need you to verify that the man who has returned is the man who left, all those years ago.”
Yes, all those x-ray corneids and cytoscanners built in, and you beautiful headcases can’t tell a dogcatcher from the Pope unless you take a gander at their Golgi bodies.
“Well, OK. What raised your suspicions?”
“His cells. I examined them, down to the cytoplasm. The cells of this man are not the same cells my Tim had when he left.”
“I am designed for utter, unshakeable loyalty, Marcus.”
Yes, jealous psychopaths demand that. The appeal of a Synthi.
“I belong to Tim. If a man not my owner touches me, I must report to the macerator.”
As I well know, Annie. All this time, I haven’t laid a hand wrong on you. I, who could never afford a luxury such as you.
“Annie, my dear, your problem is conceptual. Are you sitting down? Comfortable? Allow me to tell you a story.”
“It’s about a fellow named Theseus. Theseus had a ship. A wooden sailing ship. Yes, it was a long time ago. Now, after Theseus died, that ship became a famous tourist attraction. It stood in the square at Athens for hundreds of years.”
“The ship was not moved? It did not disappear and then return?”
“No. But the same question came up regarding this ship that you’ve raised about your Tim. You see, over the years, the planks of Theseus’ ship rotted. As they rotted, the caretakers replaced them one by one. The spars likewise rusted. They were replaced. Eventually, Annie, every piece of Theseus’ ship was a replacement. Now the question is, when the last original part was replaced, was that ship at Athens the same ship on which the hero sailed so many years before?”
“No. Yes. No. All right, I suppose you could say it was the same ship.”
“So it is with your Tim, Annie. Human cells die. New cells grow. Your Tim has probably replaced every cell in his body since he left. Especially if he was wounded and put in the regen gel.”
“He is like the ship.”
“In a way.”
“He is Tim.”
“Most would say that’s the case.”
“Although nothing of the original Tim remains.”
“Annie, we humans perceive continuity across time. The child is father to the man. Tim persists, though Tim be created anew.”
I could tell she was upset. She’d been hoping for a different answer. Even if it meant a trip to the macerator.
She spoke again: musically, angelically, the melody of heartbreak. “All right, Mr. Marcus. I understand the concept. But I’d feel better if someone with human perception could verify Tim’s identity.”
The phoneprint thrummed and spat out two photographs.
“Did you get the pics, Mr. Marcus? The first one is Tim just before he left. The second is the man who claims to be Tim now. Will you tell me if they appear to be the same man?”
I looked over the pictures. One showed a tall haughty officer in the Starmarine. The other depicted a short, red-haired mensch in repairman’s coveralls.
I kept my voice steady. “They look like the same man to me, Annie.”
Ten minutes later, I opened the door to Annie’s flat. There she stood: tall, exquisite, utterly lovely. Her optids scanned me, seeing the different cells that she understood to be both not Tim and Tim. She could not see my short stature, blobby nose, scarred hands.
“My husband,” she said to me.
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“Yes, Annie.” I ran a hand through my red hair.
“I have been loyal in your absence. I only beg you: be kind.”
“And I beg you: do not abuse me, though it is your right.”
“Things will be different now, Annie.” More different than you’ll ever know, my love.
Now all I have to do is learn to answer to “Tim.”
Food for Thought
The dilemma faced by Annie in this story is one of identity: if a eukaryotic organism like a human replaces all its bodily substance every seven years or so, can a man of 50 be said to share an identity with his vanished 20-year-old self? W.V.O. Quine dismisses this problem as a quibble of semantics. The identity of an organism over time, says Quine, doesn’t depend on retention of substance, but on a continuity of identification. If the name “Theseus’ Ship” is continuously applied to an entity even as that entity renews itself, it remains Theseus’ ship. I would add that it remains so as long as people want to call it that. If Theseus sells his ship to Heracles, the ship can be called “Heracles’ Ship” and change identity the moment the papers have been signed. In such a case, the question of retained substance doesn’t come up. (Aristotle’s formal, material, and final causes are a more finicky way of expressing the same idea.)
Annie is a bit of a preposterous creature. She can’t attach an identity to a person except by verifying the constituent parts. You and I know that a tall Lieutenant rarely morphs into a short repairman, but Annie doesn’t know that, and Mr. Marcus can fool her easily. We should go easy on Annie, and remember that Mrs. Martin Guerre fell for a ruse that wasn’t much cleverer.
About the Author
Matthew F. Amati was born in Chicago, Illinois. He’s made a lifelong habit of holding down unusual jobs, including farmhand, Chinese translator, industrial roller salesman, professor of Classics at Howard University, and factotum at The Jerry Springer Show. Matt now lives in Madison, Wisconsin.
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Any physical change, no matter how small, to a material object creates a different object. Any continued reference to the changed object by the same name is a matter of convenience, convention, or definition, not actuality.
If a human being is only a material body, the same rule applies. This is true even if the human being thinks otherwise. His experience of not changing despite the actually of change – Quine’s “continuation of identity” – is an illusion.
Annie is not at all preposterous. She is using the correct method of identifying her owner. However, Tim has messed with her programming, so that she cannot correctly interpret the data.
That seems like an extreme position. The electrons in the atoms that make up a physical object change moment to moment, so by that logic, identity is meaningless. I think Quine’s point is that even if identity is an illusion, it’s an illusion of convenience; we need a concept of identity to be able to refer to anything at all. As for Annie’s equation of identity with constituent parts, it assumes that there’s no difference between parts and the whole. Maybe on a fundamental level there’s no difference between a ravenous lion and a goldfish (they’re just bunches of carbon), but it’s important to me that I be able to perceive one. Maybe Annie’s not preposterous, but her limited perception isn’t very useful. Mr. Marcus hasn’t messed with her programming; he’s exploiting its limitations.(Also, recent advances in facial recognition technology make a future Annie not very likely!)
Thanks for commenting; I love getting into this stuff.
I wouldn’t say that identity is meaningless, just that it is an illusion, in the same way as, and as an adjunct to, consciousness. Identity is the imposition of narrative structure on experience. Which leads me to think that meaning itself is an illusion resulting from the imposition of narrative structure on experience. In the end, the illusion of identity creates meaning, so that identity makes itself meaningful. (Now my head hurts.)
Seeing Marcus (I misidentified him as Tim – ironic) as exploiting the limitations of her programming is a better description of what he did.
What a disturbing story! (I mean that as a compliment). I’ve seen many stories exploring the nature of robots as slaves, but this one is a twist.
Mr. Marcus acts under subterfuge, not openly. At first I thought this was creepy. And it certainly would be creepy, if Annie were a human being with human agency. But Annie is hard-wired for loyalty to one person. And if enough time elapses, and the government declares the original Tim to be dead, someone will force Annie to be recycled.
What alternative does Mr. Marcus have to act in a moral fashion?
Is it moral to build a robot such as Annie in the first place? She has enough self-awareness that she doesn’t want to be recycled, doesn’t want to be macerated, and certainly does not want to be abused. But she has no choice about her emotional bonds.