Friday, December 4, 2009

...But We'll Pay You For The Inconvenience

The following thought experiment was suggested by someone in a comment thread on another blog:

Suppose you are approached by an auditor of reality, who informs you that due to a clerical error you were born with the wrong race/gender/sexual orientation/etc. The auditor has no choice but to correct this error immediately, but by way of compensation will offer you a one-time lump sum payment. Knowing that from now on, people will deal with you as if you are and always have been your new race/gender/sexual orientation/etc, but that you will retain all your current skills and capabilities, how much do you feel would be a sufficent compensation?

I tend to do my thought experiments in story form, so here was my first response:

Michael turned to look at the figure beside him. He was, simply, surprised beyond the ability to form a coherent reply.

The figure was humanoid tall, lean, and faintly transparent. In addition, it seemed to emit a faint golden glow, though it was hard to be cure with the lights on and a white wall behind it. Everything else about it was in a constant state of nearly superliminal flux. "Did you hear me?" it asked, in a voice possessed of that same nothing-and-everything quality. "I need to discuss a small clerical error with you."

Michael swallowed, and finally found his voice. "In my bathroom?" he asked.

"Yes," said the apparition. "We are in your bathroom. I am an auditor, and I am here to correct an error."

"You've come to give me my Vast Supernatural Powers?" Michael asked hopefully.

The auditor continued unfazed. "No. There was a clerical error. You were born to the wrong parents, in the wrong place. You must be removed to your proper place, and this must be done now. Some compensation can be made for the inconvenience."

Michael hesitated, sorting questions in his mind. It never occurred to him that he might be dreaming, but then that sort of thing seldom occurred to him when he actually was dreaming. "How does that work?" he asked. "I mean, if you move me to, say, China, I'm probably going to stand out."

"You misunderstand. You will be placed in your intended role, including the necessary body. You may keep your memories and skills, if you wish, but everyone will treat you as if you are and always were as you should have been." The auditor was briefly hermaphroditic, then slipped into a broad-shouldered, round-bellied male body; it hair and face continued to cascade through a variety of features. "What compensation would you wish?"

"I'm being retconned?"

There was a pause. "Yes," said the auditor, "that is an apt description."

"And I'll have a completely different body?"


Michael reached for the toilet paper. "...Where are you putting me?"

"South America, in the Andes, near..."

Michael raised his hand. He didn't know enough geography to make sense of anything more specific than that. "And you won't, or can't, give me vast supernatural powers."

"No. Continuity is vital."

"But you can give some compensation - something you can slip into the world without spoiling the continuity? Money, or something like that?"

"That is correct." The auditor's voice was still strangely toneless, but Michael thought he detected something like relief.

"And I can't just refuse? I mean, I like my life, mostly."

"No. The error must be corrected. If I do not redirect you, then I remove you. Continuity is vital."

That sounds ominous. "Could you set up a gold mine, or something that would provide a steady source of modest income for me?"

The auditor paused again. "That could be done."

Michael stood and pulled up his pants, then turned to flush the toilet. When the roar died away, he looked at the auditor again. It was female now, with thin and curly silver hair, but then he blinked and it was younger, emaciated, darker-skinned. "Sure," he said. "Why not? I'm new here, I don't have that many friends, I've got no children - that I know of - and I'm not really going to miss this place. Set me up with a nice place to live and a steady source of income - and let me keep my memory and skills - and I'm good."

"It is done." The world seemed to shimmer, and suddenly the auditor's constant fluctuations seemed solid and unchanging. Then reality folded in around them again, and Michael found himself on a mountain path. He was aware of a weight on his back, and (partly as a consequence) aware that his body felt wrong. It was only when he tried to reach for the weight on his back - and nearly pitched himself face-forward onto the ground - that he realized what had happened. His hand was a hoof; his arm was a leg. The weight on his back was probably a set of saddlebags, and if the auditor had kept its word, there was probably a modest amount of raw gold in them. He turned his head, and saw the mouth of the mine in the mountainside behind him, saw dark-skinned men in grubby clothing loading up another beast of burden.

He'd kept his memories and skills, and even (possibly as a bonus) his intellect. There was a gold mine, to supply a steady income for him. No doubt there was also a nice place for him to live. He wasn't sure how much help that would be to a llama, though.

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