"To Prove Free Will, You Have To Do Something You Don’t Want To."

I stumbled upon the premiere of this new television show last night. It contained the eponymous line, which is a bit pithier than the usual prime-time broadcast dialog. Even cooler, this line was a quote from a psychopathic assassin named Edward who’d recently been upbraided by his boss for gratuitously killing his target; in a nice subversion of expectation, the boss’s real objection was that she’d wanted that target brought in for torture, and she suspected Edward had pulled the trigger out of an abundance of mercy.

But the real kicker is that the dude hearing the quote was a surgically isolated self-aware chunk of Edward’s own temporal lobe. We’re talking technologically-induced multiple personality disorder; we’re talking the ultimate sleeper agent. Each persona is activated and deactivated by remote control; Henry, the milque-toast family man, doesn’t even know that Edward exists. He honestly thinks he’s just some kind of efficiency consultant who has to travel a lot. They’re basically the Gang of Four with fewer options, and the whole arrangement works great until the snooze button fucks up and Henry the family man boots out of turn, to find himself holding a sniper rifle in a foreign country.

The show is “My Own Worst Enemy“, and it stars Christian Slater, and perhaps because I had no expectations — hell, I had no awareness — I liked it quite a bit. I liked watching the two personae, only one of which is conscious at any given time, learn to communicate with each other using notes written on their hands. (Edward is mightily pissed that Henry drives his car. Henry’s not so keen on the thought of Edward fucking his wife. They fight crime.) I liked the relatively light touch with they dealt with questions of human identity.

If they continue to do that — if they explore the neurology of individuality, the nature of sentience, all those nifty philosophical issues that science fiction is custom-made to deal with — this show could turn into something really special. Or it could deteriorate into a weekly spy show whose failed attempts at comic relief boil down to “So, you using the body tonight?” or “But honey, it was the other me with that woman!” In which case it might even be lamer than Fringe.

I really hope they go the first route. Especially since it looks like The Sarah Connor Chronicles won’t be with us much longer.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Tuesday October 14 2008at 09:10 am , filed under ink on art . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

10 Responses to “"To Prove Free Will, You Have To Do Something You Don’t Want To."”

  1. Hmmm, sounds a bit like Jekyll. Although I have not seen My Own Worst Enemy, and I’ve only seen half of Jekyll.

  2. I guess he got paid… in the brain.

  3. jim said:

    i guess he got paid… in the brain

    hee hee. Only after many glasses of work….

  4. Except wasn’t this the lynchpin of the first Naked Gun movie?

  5. Worse than FRINGE. That would be something to contemplate.

    This one’s on the “Maybe when it’s out on DVD, if it survives,” list for us.

  6. I doubt they’ll do it. The suits would avoid it as too ‘talky and smart.’ The writers are likely to concentrate on things that get them paid (explosions, weapons, fast cars and the cute female lead in revealing clothing). However, if they do I’ll be very impressed.

  7. I question who is in control when the body’s training. Because Henry’s skills might be top-notch, but if Edward is in dire need of a balloon angioplasty, then they’re both in trouble. So who’s regulating stuff like that? Does Henry “make” Edward eat his vegetables and do his crunches, without his knowing? What about target practise? Who established the muscle memories?

    I guess you solve these problems if Edward is really the interface, the layer of civilization that separates Henry from the rest of the world and keeps everyone around him safe. If Edward’s the condom, it makes total sense. But if they’re truly separate, then I wonder how Henry’s skills play out in Edward’s body. Maybe he’s been taking those pills that make mowing the lawn into an Olympic sport?

  8. Hey, if they’ve got the technology to pull off a split like this, then you know they have advanced medications like the pills Peter was grumping about earlier.

    But muscle/spinal memory is an issue – how do they keep Henry in top form if (most) of his down time is as Edward?

  9. Well, having watched the pilot, I concur with Peter’s analysis; if it follows the high (deep?) road, it’ll be killer. (Pun intended after the fact.) If the writers try for low comedy too often it could kill a good concept.

    In that episode it’s slipped in that Edward the ex-Special Forces killer hero is the original primary personality, and Henry the traveling salesman is the construct. Edward is aware of Henry’s existence but doesn’t share any of his memories; Henry has begun to ‘dream’ awareness of some (not all) of what Edward does and is.

    It’s also established in a throwaway line of his daughter’s that Henry ‘travels’ (i.e. reverts to being Edward) “for two days every two days” – so she doesn’t see why she should make a big deal of his return, and there should be plenty of time for Edward to keep up his mad killin’ skilz.

    I also noticed that Henry doesn’t do very well driving Edward’s high performance car, which would seem to indicate that those skills don’t carry over perfectly, but that could also be put down to a confidence issue, so I guess it isn’t completely set at this point.

  10. Ah, that does clarify matters, slightly. I can agree that if we’re dealing with remote control mind-scrambling (hey, could I get that for my Wiimote?), then yeah, instant!fitness makes more sense even if muscle memory doesn’t. (And targeting. Let’s not forget targeting.) The same goes for his frequent “traveling” and exercise.

    Now I’m wondering about things like cravings. Do Edward and Henry have different preferences in food? Because to some extent those are based in conscious memory: I recall the taste of my friend’s apricot-infused lamb tagine, and now when I crave tagine I crave that one, and not others. My memory of tagine is bound up in that specific experience. So I wonder now whether the special agent has memories of otherwise-innocuous things that will allow the two personae to bleed together. You know, Henry unwittingly eats pistachio pudding and suddenly remembers Edward’s mother getting beaten to death with a tire iron. Things like that.