What Leonard Hofstadter knows

FICTION

“The reason no other animals evolved like humans, is they watched what we did. Then instead of doing that, they concentrated on the important things, like their basic needs and expanding their minds, to eventually speak telepathically, all the while unbeknown to us. It was quite brilliant in its subtlety.”

That’s not from the story which follows, but it’s a good introduction and from another one I’m writing. Like that, this is about animal sentience. But I’m a surrealist. So I imagined the young character from my children’s book, with her talking dog and cat. I watched a documentary on AI in the home (worried and amused), then imagined if perhaps a future ethics committee might get stoned, or have some other reason for integrating universal translation algorithms into AI home assistants. So I put the Babel fish into Amazon’s Echo, Google Home and so on, went to 2042 (18 minutes before 9pm) and this come out of the typewriter…

cat optimist

A GIRL, SHELDON COOPER AND PETER COOK

On earth, it was generally accepted among cats, that cats were the superior species. In this feline hierarchy, humans and dogs were equal but different, with little regard for the white mice and dolphins.

This social order came about when Amazon integrated universal translation algorithms into their Alexa AI home assistants, and others followed. In 2042, life in the home was very different to the one we know now.

The term β€œanimal” had long since fallen into obscurity, now reserved for those who are less than β€œperson” in its modern definition: a sentient, self-aware and self-determining being, which has a conscience, experiences emotions, and displays empathy with other people.

A few exceptions aside, most Persona non grata had written themselves out of any worthwhile news and were confined to their own history. Only a few Tory grandees clung on in antiquated underground offices, blathering about the past and not being listened to.

β€œDo you know what I think?” Sheldon Cooper asked.

β€œNo,” replied Peter Cook, looking up from his chair. β€œAnd I didn’t ask.”

β€œWell, let’s see what Ellie thinks. She’s just coming downstairs.”

β€œI know,” the dog acknowledged.

β€œHow?” the cat wondered.

β€œI can hear her.”

β€œOh.”

β€œWhat are you two talking about?” Ellie wondered, wiping her hands on Pete.

β€œI thought I felt your presence,” Sheldon said, sitting up on the sofa. β€œNice of you to get dressed. Did you wash your hands?”

β€œYes,” Ellie replied, β€œwhat are you talking about.”

β€œWell, he,” Peter nodded at the cat, β€œwas going to spout on about something…”

β€œI don’t spout,” Sheldon protested.

β€œAs I was saying, I didn’t want to hear.”

β€œYou don’t know what I was going to say.”

β€œAha!” said the dog, sitting up, β€œhow do you know?”

β€œCan you read my mind?” Sheldon asked.

β€œNo,” Peter replied, β€œcan you?”

β€œOkay,” Ellie interrupted. β€œWho’s for dinner?”

β€œI’ll eat him if you want,” Peter said.

β€œI’d make your breath smell better,” the cat replied.

β€œOkay,” Ellie interrupted again. β€œWhat would you like for dinner? I’ll cook.”

β€œDo you have tuna?” Sheldon asked.

β€œWe do,” Ellie replied.

β€œLine-caught?”

β€œYes.”

β€œIn water, not brine?”

β€œYes, in water.”

β€œCut into chunks, with some black pepper and a squeeze of fresh lemon?”

β€œLike you always have it.”

β€œYes. That please.”

β€œFine. Pete?”

β€œEr…” Peter yawned, β€œGot any steak? You know, that one they grow, not farmed.”

β€œWe should have. If not, I can print you some.”

β€œYeah, do that anyway, fresher.”

β€œHey, why does he get printed food?”

β€œI’ll print yours if you like, cat.”

β€œNo, I like it the way you do it.”

β€œSo, why…” Ellie thought, β€œnever mind.”

β€œWhat are you having?” Pete asked Ellie.

β€œI’ll probably just print a pizza.”

β€œIs it Thursday?” Sheldon wondered, as Ellie made dinner, β€œI sense it’s going to be a strange night.”

β€œHere we go,” Ellie announced, returning with food, β€œup at the table please. Anyone wanna smoke?”

β€œTold you,” said the cat. β€œDo you mind if we eat while you smoke?”

β€œWhat shall we talk about?” Ellie ignored the cat.

β€œDeath,” Pete said. β€œBut you wouldn’t know about that, would you cat, with your nine lives and everything. Have you worked out what those are all for yet?”

β€œWe will find that out around 3000 years from now.”

β€œOh, here we go…The self-proclaimed superior species on this planet, haven’t worked out why they’re here yet.”

β€œWell neither have you, dog.”

β€œI sometimes think I’m dead already.”

β€œWhy?” Sheldon wondered.

β€œCan you tell me I’m not?”

β€œWell, I can see you’re not. So what, you think all this is a computer simulation, like The Matrix?”

β€œCould be.”

β€œBut you lack proof.”

β€œAnd you don’t know why you’re here, cat.”

β€œI need to urinate.” Sheldon jumped down from his chair and wandered around the garden.

β€œI love the way you two get on,” Ellie said to Peter.

β€œSarcasm?” Pete wondered aloud.

β€œOnly partly. I’m very fond of the way you are.”

β€œWell, everyone’s themselves Ellie, and most people shouldn’t apologise for that. I think with dogs and cats, it’s a mutual tolerance and a begrudging respect.”

β€œWhat about humans?”

β€œWhat about them?”

β€œDo you just tolerate us?”

β€œSometimes it’s confusing,” Pete thought. β€œWe do look up to you, because you’re pretty smart. But sometimes you overcomplicate things. Dogs look at things more simply. We worry less. I mean, go out for a walk with us a couple of times a day, open a box of DogNip chews, and I’ve pretty much nailed my day.”

β€œYou’re much less paranoid and insecure than us humans.”

β€œOh, I don’t know Ellie. Having you around is nice for company, but all dogs have an inferiority complex, and issues of balance.”

β€œBalance? Of what?”

β€œWe wonder about things like the difference between friends and family, and the colours of cars. I mean, we’re perhaps more in touch with our instincts, but those are a bit sexist and misogynistic. And I think purple cars smell nicer than green ones.”

β€œHow’d you mean?”

β€œWell, they’re like candyfloss.”

β€œYes, but the sexism and misogyny.”

β€œOh, all that old-fashioned nature stuff, going to mum for milk, and dad for protection. Then in humans, the hunter-gatherer and the cook.”

β€œWell, we’re more a commune here, friends and family.”

β€œYes, I know. I remember when you came out of hospital that time, and you were in a wheelchair. I didn’t know whether to hug you or sit on your lap.”

β€œEllie?” Sheldon was back. β€œWhere are my wipes?”

β€œI don’t know. Use mine, they’re upstairs.”

β€œBut those are yours, and they’re upstairs. I specifically hid mine here, so I had them when I came in.”

β€œI might have eaten them.” Pete said.

β€œWhy would you do that?” the cat asked.

β€œTo freshen my breath? I don’t know if I did, I’m just saying I might have.”

β€œThe paradoxical dog,” Sheldon muttered, jumping back on his chair.

β€œDid you wipe your feet?” Pete asked.

β€œI always clean my feet, so yes.”

β€œOne day you’ll forget.”

β€œSo what if I do?”

β€œYou’ll know you’re getting old. Anyway, why do you get to go out at all hours and I don’t?”

β€œExcuse me,” Ellie interrupted, β€œYou can go out whenever you like Pete, on your own, or with your friends.”

β€œOh. And there was me, thinking you enjoyed walking with me, playing your favourite game in the park.”

β€œWhich one?”

β€œThrowing sticks.”

β€œMy game?”

β€œWell, yes. I assume that’s why you throw sticks, because you enjoy me fetching them for some reason.”

β€œBut that’s your game.”

β€œNo it’s not. You made it up.”

β€œYeah, because you like fetching sticks.”

β€œNo I don’t. I couldn’t care where they end up, but you seem to have so much fun throwing them, I just figure I’m humouring you.”

β€œOne day,” Ellie said, β€œyou dogs will get over your inferiority complex.”

β€œNot while there are cats around,” Pete replied, β€œthey have a superiority delusion.”

β€œIt’s not a delusion,” Sheldon argued.

β€œSo what about them lives then, what are they for?”

β€œCuriosity, which is just as likely to kill anyone else as it is a cat. But cats seek knowledge, so we were given nine lives with which to discover it.”

β€œWhile everyone else already worked out it’s pretty dull, so they’re just sitting around relaxing,” Pete suggested. β€œEllie, what do you think about death?”

β€œThat’s a very big question, because it depends on the definition of death.”

β€œWhat, more than either dead or alive?”

β€œWell, yeah. It’s not a bipolar subject. I mean, I don’t fear my own death – except maybe the means of departure – but being forgotten scares me, like being erased from history. I believe that life as we know it, is a passing phase, in something we don’t fully understand yet.”

β€œDo you subscribe,” Sheldon interrupted, β€œto quantum physics?”

β€œWell, it stopped being a theory long ago. If you mean, do I get that everything exists in more than one state simultaneously, and that quantum entanglement means every subatomic particle in the universe is connected to another, telepathically, then yes. Definitely.”

β€œGood,” the cat said, β€œbecause a lot of philosophical and theoretical examples of my species perished in that debate.”

β€œSee?” Pete perked up. β€œBloody cats, getting everywhere, proving things. When was a dog ever involved in an experiment? I mean, why not SchrΓΆdinger’s dogs? By the way, what in the name of anyone’s arse, did mankind think it was getting up to, sending one of my kind up to space, before we had the technology to ask if it was okay?”

β€œThat,” Ellie replied, β€œwas humanity getting up its own arse. But Laika was our little trailblazer, still floating in a tin can out there somewhere. We owe her a lot.”

β€œAt least you’re grateful,” Pete said, β€œfetching your sticks, flying your spaceships…And yes, Laika’s floating around out there, unceremoniously abandoned, but it’s quite poetic in a way.”

β€œWhat, like Space Oddity, David Bowie?”

β€œNo, I just think it’s funny. Who’s to say Laika didn’t get out there and everything worked fine? Then she sussed the controls and just buggered off. Maybe it was all an elaborate plan, and the dogs had another planet somewhere.”

β€œUnlikely.”

β€œBut equally, not impossible. You couldn’t talk to us back then. What you might have thought was static noise, could have been her talking. But there was no universal translator back then.”

β€œThe paradoxical dog,” Sheldon murmured.

β€œWell, yes,” Pete agreed, β€œbut the point is, humans had no right to do that. Because back then, humans didn’t regard what they called animals as having feelings or emotions. But what was clearly a sentient, self-determining and self-aware being, was used in an experiment without consultation or consent, simply because it was assumed to be inferior. That is immoral, and even more so for the cowardice in persecuting a person whose voice couldn’t be heard.”

β€œSo is much which humanity has done,” Ellie agreed, β€œagainst its own kind too. It’s a burden which rests heavily on those of us who give a shit.”

β€œIf I might add a cat’s opinion,” Sheldon said, β€œit might make things easier to understand.”

β€œGo on.”

β€œHumans were in denial. Your science hadn’t proven the obvious, that so-called animals could feel, so it was conveniently overlooked and humans continued, well, being human.”

β€œNow I feel good about myself. Thanks Sheldon.”

β€œSarcasm?”

β€œNo!”

β€œOh. And I thought I was getting the hang of that one.”

β€œEver since we’ve been able to talk,” Pete said, β€œthere is still much about humans which confuses us.”

β€œSame,” Ellie added, β€œonly now that we can talk, can we talk like this.”

β€œReally, I hadn’t noticed,” Sheldon noted.

β€œSarcasm?” Pete wondered.

β€œNo. Cats have always been able to talk, and to hear you. Nothing’s changed with humans, because you still don’t make sense.”

β€œBut you can understand me?” Ellie checked.

β€œI can hear you, and the rest of the human race, in you. But with a growing number of exceptions, humans still seem hell bent on destroying our planet.”

β€œYou mean,” Pete said, β€œthe planet we all share?”

β€œYou’re only here because the humans brought you. Earth was originally the cats’. Then humans came along and our ancestors agreed to let humans be humans, hoping they might learn.”

β€œWho says?”

β€œMany ancient feline scribes.”

β€œLike the human ones,” Ellie added, β€œwho wrote the various human religious scriptures?”

β€œVery much so,” Sheldon confirmed, β€œand those ancient human scribes wrote of cat gods, did they not?”

β€œIn Egypt, and some other places, yes.”

β€œSo,” Sheldon continued, β€œdoesn’t that prove that man worshipped cats as gods?”

β€œNot at all. Each ancient script is an individual’s interpretation of events, as they saw them, and recorded using the means available to them at the time. It’s what all ancient alien theories are built on, and it’s what unifies science and religion in many humans now. The point is, it’s a paradox. But it doesn’t matter who was here first, it’s what we do now that we’re here.”

β€œSometimes,” Pete spoke now. β€œSometimes, I wish I was a dyslexic insomniac.”

β€œWhy?”

β€œBecause dogs are generally agnostic, and that would allow me to lie awake at night, wondering if God is a dog.”

β€œReally though,” Sheldon said, β€œwe’re all the same.”

β€œHardly,” Pete said.

β€œNo, I mean inside, and at a fundamental level. Forget animals and humans as the outdated terms which they now are. As people, we are all the same. Just as the root of all humans’ conflicts – both internal and external – is in an inability to see others as alternative versions of themselves, so that can be transcended to encompass us all. Whether we’re an atheist cat, an agnostic dog, or a whatever you are Ellie, all those scribes wrote what they saw, and science proved what we now know. And that’s that we’re all connected and the only true creator is the universe itself.”

β€œYeah, but who set that off?” Pete wondered.

β€œOh, for fuck sake.”

β€œIt’s a good job we can all talk now.”

Β© Steve Laker, 2017.

be excellent

The Unfinished Literary Agency is available now. My other books are available from Amazon and can be ordered from any book shop, or requested at libraries.

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