Ralph Cutner was fictional, but Niles didn’t hold that against him.
There were advantages in having a fictional human – a Fictional – for a therapist. Niles could still remember the four fruitless months, four and a half years ago, two hours a week, when he’d perched uncomfortably on the edge of a teal suede couch belonging to one Dr Mary Loewes.
She’d done most of the talking. Niles, for his part, would hesitate for long seconds, then nod silently or make small meaningless noises. On rare occasions, he might actually manage to answer one of her questions – though guardedly, with a drawn-out, one-word answer, as if he was sitting in an interrogation cell instead of a tastefully-appointed office.
Inside Niles’ head, it was a different story.
“What you don’t understand, Mary,” the author snapped, (he would narrate to himself) “is that I was attempting a last-ditch attempt to save my marriage. That’s why I slept with that woman – to wake my wife up to the problems we were going through before it was too late!”
“Mr Golan, I understand perfectly well,” Dr Loewes said, understandingly, “and I agree completely with everything you just said.”
Niles Golan had a habit of internally narrating his own life story, usually improving on it as he went. Mostly, it was the romance of a juicy internal monologue, a quirk – like the habit of rolling golf balls around in his palm that he’d claimed was how he came up with new ideas, at least until he’d lost one of the golf balls – that he assumed made him deep. Partly, it was born of a neurotic desire to always be working, or at least pretend to be working – the kind of thing that Dr Loewes could have helped with, if he’d opened up to her for half a second.
Laughing inwardly at the obviousness of her technique, the author deflected her foolish questions with a practiced panache, Niles would think, or something like it. And later, as he signed over the four hundred dollars she required per hour, he would feel a warm glow of satisfaction, as if he’d won a game he was playing with her. Another session finished – another session with the walls of his mental fortress still unbreached.
After thirty-four sessions – coming to thirteen thousand, six hundred dollars in total – he had decided that therapy was too expensive a hobby to pursue any further.
“And yet...” said Ralph Cutner, four and a half years later, as Niles Golan relaxed in the sumptuous brown leather chair he kept for his patients, “... here we are.”
“Well, this is hardly the same,” Niles muttered, leaning back into the warm recesses of the brown leather. It was the same chair that had been on the show – as far as possible, Ralph had tried to duplicate the set of Cutner’s Chair to the last degree when setting up his practice, and obviously the chair itself played a large part of that. He’d bought it from a memorabilia collector for twelve thousand dollars and a signed photo.
“Well, no. I mean, it’s different, isn’t it? The sessions with Doctor Loewes... they were something I promised Iyla I’d do. Before the divorce, I mean.”
“Right, right. This would have been after the thing with Justine.” Ralph smiled. Like most Fictionals created specifically for the small screen, he was a handsome man – a little craggy, perhaps, not quite as unnaturally gorgeous as some of the soap-opera Fictionals, but definitely the better looking of the two men. Not that Niles had much to worry about – obviously his chin was weaker, and he’d been going bald for some time, and his nose was perhaps a little long, but all that added character.
And he was real, of course. That made a difference.
“Whereas this, on the other hand,” he said, ignoring the mention of Justine Coverly – he really didn’t want to talk about her today, or any of the others, or his ex-wife – “these weekly sessions with you... that’s something I came to of my own accord. It was my decision to come and see you, I wasn’t pressured into it by anybody, so...” Niles shrugged, waving a hand idly. “There we are. Completely different situations.”
Ralph half-smiled, raising one eyebrow – the imperfections of which had been discussed by the studio’s design team for some days. He paused dramatically for a moment before speaking.
“That’s the only difference?”
Niles swallowed. “Well, yes. Absolutely.” He coughed. “The only difference that matters – to me, I mean.” He leaned forward, scratching the back of his head. Ralph’s arms were folded now, and Niles had a feeling he’d seen that particular fold of the arms on the ‘very special episode’ of Cutner’s Chair where Ralph Cutner had analysed a Grand Wizard of the local Klan.
“Do, um... do you think there are any other differences?” Ralph tried to make his voice as innocent as possible. “Between you and her? That matter?”
Ralph raised his other eyebrow.
Niles sighed. “It’s going to sound insulting.”
“It’s going to sound as if... well, as if I don’t consider you a real…” He swallowed. “You know.”
Ralph’s eyes crinkled just so, in a way that hadn’t been designed into him but was encouraged by the director all the same, particularly for close-ups. The crinkle of Ralph’s eyes was a happy accident for the translation team. “No, I don’t know. You’re going to have to tell me.” He chuckled. “A real therapist? A real jerk? A real human being? What?”
Niles shifted uncomfortably in the chair for a moment. "... A real therapist," he finished, weakly.
Ralph leaned back against the wall, lowering and raising his eyebrows in a little ballet. His eyebrows were very expressive, when he wanted them to be. "Hesitation. That’s very interesting."
The author stared Ralph Cutner right in the eye as his ridiculous eyebrows waggled like caterpillars. With one insouciant glare, he dared the man to make his accusation and be done. Instead, the Fictional crumbled, utterly defeated.
Niles didn’t look at Ralph. He looked at the floor. The silence stretched on.
"Here’s the thing, Niles.” Ralph suddenly grinned, showing teeth. “I'm not a real therapist – I mean, I made that clear when you started coming to see me. Technically, I'm a life coach. Because to call yourself a therapist, you need to get certain degrees. I don’t have those. I never went to college – I was never the age you go to college at. I’ve always been thirty-five – or able to play thirty-five, I should say. In real terms, I’m nine.” He leant forward, jerking a thumb conspiratorially at the certificates on the wall. "The moment I came out of the translation tube, those degrees were waiting for me. They’re not real, either. Just props, from the show.” Another dry little chuckle. “But you knew that."
Niles flushed red. Of course, he knew all about the show: Cutner’s Chair, a one-hour weekly drama about a curmudgeonly psychiatrist with a heart of gold who (with the help of a clutch of beautiful interns) solved one crippling neurosis per week in time for a montage of learning moments cut to some unobjectionable indie song aimed at the dad demographic. It had run for seven seasons, leaving behind a large albeit steadily shrinking fan base, several dozen tumblr accounts, a small ocean of memorabilia – and the Fictional, Ralph Cutner.
There were still, occasionally, in far-flung corners of the world, people who didn’t know what Fictionals were.
Strictly speaking, a Fictional was a cloned and modified human being. If you’d worked in the fast food industry, you’d probably have an understanding of cloning – since the big genetics breakthroughs of the seventies and eighties, it was where the meat came from. The higher class of restaurant still used ‘real’ chickens, pigs and cows, but anyone who told you they could taste the difference was a liar, and a pretentious one at that.
The laws of most countries prohibited the cloning and duplication of real people. “Every American has the right to their individual identity” was the line in the US. There were also various bans in place on weaponised and otherwise enhanced humans, but every so often North Korea would crow about men who could see in the dark and lift buses, at which point any country with the technology to achieve that would realise they were far better off just working on a nuclear programme. Which they did.
So really, the only legal or useful place left for human cloning was in entertainment.
They’d already used a cloned shark in Jaws – augmenting it to be larger, more vicious-looking, but also more docile and easy to train. Thanks to some wheeling and dealing behind the scenes, it was significantly cheaper than the cost of a model would have been. In the wake of that film’s success, a brief spate of creature features with cloned animals followed – Dodectapus, Pirhana, Death Bear – and, eventually, someone took a close look at the laws on the books and decided to take the next logical step.
George Burns had been in the running for the title role in Oh, God!, but the studio made the decision, somewhat blasphemously, to cast a cloned human with a personality programmed by a computer – a computer the size of several rooms, back then – to match the God from the original Avery Corman novel. According to the law, real people could not be duplicated, but fictional people – as confirmed by a fairly contentious ruling from the Supreme Court – were fair game.
(In trying to explain the Supreme Court’s working, Warren Burger made a rather confused analogy – that, just as fictions could be translated from English to Spanish, so they could be ‘translated’ into the language of the human genetic code. It was one of the least coherent statements of his career, but the term stuck.)
God, as he emerged from the translation tube, had a warm, beatific personality and a wickedly dry sense of humour, but what made his performance – as himself, or Himself, depending on how heretical you were feeling – was the essential otherworldliness he brought to the role, that strange touch of unreality. If you were to watch the film today, you probably won’t notice it – we’re used to Fictionals now – but imagine how it must have been, in 1977, to see a fictional man walking and talking for the very first time...
God made two sequels – one with George Burns starring opposite him as The Devil – and after that, the studio released him from his contract and he was left to his own devices. Over the next year – 1985 – he starred in ‘special episodes’ of Magnum, P.I. and Cheers and announced his plans to write a (necessarily short) autobiography. He never finished the book; he was found dead in bed in late December of that year. Physically, he was eight years old.
By that time, eighty-three other Fictionals – most with life expectancies benefitting from the rapid improvements in cloning technology – had been produced by the larger studios. By 1990, there would be more than four hundred, each of them modelled on a fictional character from a novel, a play, or created especially for the big or small screens. By the turn of the millennium, the number of Fictionals in Los Angeles would stabilise somewhere between forty and fifty thousand.
The Fictionals were here to stay.
“…All right.” Niles sighed, looking at the floor. “Maybe I was worried about implying… oh, you know what. The other thing.”
Ralph chuckled again.
In a flash, the novelist leaped from the chair. With one expertly-delivered karate chop, the giggling moron’s neck was snapped like a cheese straw, Niles thought, as he continued to sit and stare at his shoes.
“What other thing?” Ralph grinned. “Come on, say it out loud. It won’t hurt us.”
Niles sighed. “You being a... a Fictional.” He scowled. “There, happy?”
"A Fictional." Cutner stood up and began walking around the room in a slow circle, staring intently ahead. On the Cutner's Chair message boards, this was known as the 'walk and talk' moment. He stalked his office like a panther prowling a cage, Niles found himself thinking, the laser eye of his mind seeking out every last detail of the demons plaguing the inner landscape of the handsome novelist.
It was comforting, in a way – but at the same time, oddly irritating. It almost felt as if Ralph was flaunting his unreality, shoving it down Niles’ throat.
"Say it loud, say it proud. Created, not gestated. My father was a typewriter and my mother was a translation tube.” Ralph gave himself another beat, as though following the orders of an invisible director, then turned. “I’m not real in the way that you are, Mr Golan. That’s a part of it, isn’t it?”
“No.” Niles scowled. He could see what Cutner was implying.It was arrant nonsense, of course.
There were people who thought that way – realists, they were called. They’d been a serious problem for the movie industry until 1989, when a realist mob had murdered Bernie Lomax, a Fictional created for the Weekend At Bernie’s franchise, leading to a controversial and arguably gruesome rewrite of the script. Public opinion had turned solidly against realism after that, but there were still plenty of people who felt that a character who’d emerged from a translation tube with a full personality already in place was, if not an abomination per se, at least naturally inferior to someone who’d been born from a human womb, who’d acquired their genetic makeup the old-fashioned way.
Niles wasn’t one of those people. The Fictionals were different – of course they were – but certainly not inferior.
Not very inferior.
He scowled. “I don’t know. Maybe.”
Cutner smiled, showing his teeth again. It was the predatory grin of a shark, Niles narrated, feeling the old desire to shut himself up like a clam rising in him.
“The way I see it,” Cutner said, “you couldn’t open up to Loewes because she was real. She was a professional therapist. She was analysing every word and gesture you made – or you thought she was, anyway, and that’s enough. Probably seeing things about you that you hadn’t worked out yourself yet, right? And that’s not a nice position to be in for you. You felt vulnerable.” He smiled, pouring himself an apple juice from the whiskey decanter on the sideboard; like many Fictionals, he had an aversion to alcohol, preferring the prop drinks that came on the set. He knocked the drink he’d poured back in one. “You come to me because you feel superior to me.”
“Really?” Niles tried not to roll his eyes. “Because I’m a writer? Is that it?”
“Sure, why not? A famous writer, at that. How many books is it now?”
Niles had to admit it was nice to be called a famous writer. And he certainly didn’t mind talking about his work – in fact, it was one of his favourite topics of conversation. “Eighteen. Nineteen in February. And Doubleday want a new Kurt Power novel by Christmas.”
Kurt Power was Niles Golan’s signature character; a no-nonsense private eye and ex-lawyer who, on the days he wasn’t solving cases involving genius serial killers, consulted for the police and the anti-terrorist forces. He was divorced, with a drink problem and – the clever touch Niles was most proud of – an autistic six-year-old daughter, whose unique insights often provided the key to a difficult case. The first few novels had done relatively well, before sales settled down to something reasonable but unremarkable – enough to keep Niles in the style to which he had become accustomed, but not enough to put him up amongst the greats, which was where he felt he deserved to be.
After all, what did King or Rowling have that Golan didn’t? Why did Gaiman command a Twitter following of over a million, while Niles struggled to reach six thousand? Why had Bring Up The Bodies won a Booker while Pudding And Pie: A Kurt Power Novel had been so cruelly ignored?
The critics, of course. Critics, Niles Golan believed, came in two varieties – insightful, and jealous. The insightful occasionally compared him to Clancy, or Crichton, which was flattering, although Niles really saw himself as being closer to a young Thomas Pynchon. The other kind of critic, meanwhile – the jealous kind – used words like ‘cosy’ and ‘predictable’. Which was obviously ridiculous, especially after Niles had ended Down To The Woods Tonight: A Kurt Power Novel by having the Teddy Bear Killer murder Power’s new girlfriend in cold blood, just to cruelly mess with Kurt’s head and drive him back to the drink. How could anyone have predicted a finale like that?
No, obviously whichever small-minded hack had called that stroke of brilliance ‘predictable’ – it was Lance Pritchards, writing in the Topeka Examiner – was suffering from a touch of the green-eyed monster. How depressing it must be, Niles thought, to sit behind a desk all day, being called on to write wretched little hit-pieces about wordsmiths who could out-write you in their sleep! No wonder Lance Pritchards so envied Niles that he had to use what meagre power he had to poison the well against him. Lance Pritchards and all those bastards on Amazon, giving their meagre three-star reviews to books like The Saladin Imperative: A Kurt Power Novel, even though it had surely completely changed their understanding of Middle Eastern politics.
Bastards, all of them.
Cutner smiled. “Right, right. Nineteen books. And, obviously, you know Kurt Power could end up being translated any day now,” he was actively smirking now, in a way Niles didn’t much like, “just as soon as the studios realise what a hit they’d have on their hands. Which, I guess, makes you something like a minor God compared with me...”
“I didn’t create you.”
“No, but you... ” He coughed, in a way Niles couldn’t help but notice. “... you easily could have done. Ahem.”
The Fictional’s thoughts were as visible to the author as words on a page, Niles thought. Anyway, he could have easily thought up a character like Ralph Cutner – easiest thing in the world. He’d just had his hands full with Kurt Power, that was all. Who, by the way, was a vastly more complex creation, what with his father having been murdered by the leader of the very terrorist organisation he found himself regularly defending the world from.
Ralph read his expression. “Of course, as a writer – a wordsmith – you can probably see all my motivations, my inner workings, my tropes and tics, just the way you felt Loewes could see yours. Am I warm?”
Niles grimaced. “Not even slightly. You’re stone cold,” he said bitterly.
Cutner shrugged. “Well, that’s why you come to me, to hear things you can dismiss easily.”
“That’s not true,” Niles scowled. “I just, ah, find you a little more…” Niles searched for the word, not wanting to be drawn into any more discussions of his supposed realist tendencies. “… more relatable than Loewes was. That’s all.”
Cutner chuckled. “Well, of course you can relate to me, I’m an acerbic genius who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Relating to me strokes your ego.”
Niles gritted his teeth. It took an incredible display of iron will for the author to resist rising from the chair and punching the smirk off the man. How dare he!
He forced himself to relax, and pointed to the decanter. “If it’s not too much to ask, could you pour me a glass of that?”
“Sure.” Ralph poured another apple juice and handed Niles the glass, a look of distaste crossing his face for a moment. “You’re not alone, you know – well, when it comes to the ego-stroking, at least. Most of my clients aren’t like you. They’re real fans of the show – they can quote every line. They don’t want treatment, they just come here to re-enact old scenes, or make out we’re friends. Very occasionally,” a look of disgust crossed his face, “one makes an appointment just to tell me they’re in love with me.”
Niles was shocked. “Wait, they say this to your face?”
“What can I say?” Ralph shrugged. “Some people are freaks.”
There was nothing particularly sick or wrong or unpleasant about a human being falling in love with a fictional character. That had been something for writers to aim for since literature began.
No, it was simply a question of degree.
People could fill blogs and tumblrs with adoring gifs of a particular character, a cartoon or comic-book icon – there was nothing strange about that. Nobody saw much difference between a tumblr devoted to Thor or Loki and one devoted to James Dean or Brad Pitt.
Some, admittedly, took it a little further. They might start sleeping with a body pillow or a ‘real doll’ of their favourite character, touching and stroking it in the night. Or they might photoshop a cartoon horse into their arms or their bed and put the resulting pictures up on Facebook. That might make the general public feel a little queasy.
As it was generally understood, real people could love each other. Real people could have affection for fictional characters. But if a real person loved a fictional character – well, then something had gone very, very wrong with them. There was a necessary distance between the real and the imaginary.
And when the imaginary was walking around in the world of the real, it made things even more complicated. Those queasy feelings – pity, revulsion, an overriding sense of creepiness – didn’t go away just because the fictional character in question had been translated into a clone body instead of onto a pillow. Fictionals were still imaginary beings. If anything, those feelings of disgust became even more pronounced. The idea of a human being and a Fictional having sex produced an almost phobic reaction in many people, including Niles.
There were, occasionally, human beings who slept with Fictionals, even fell in love with them. On the rare occasions when human/Fictional couplings had been admitted to – only twice since the first Fictional was translated, once in 1991 and once in 2000 – it had been professional and social suicide for both parties. The gutter press had had a field day, subjecting the couples in question to as much muck as they could hurl without fear of litigation, and the public had been happy to lap up every salacious detail. No studio would take a chance on casting a Fictional who’d been subjected to that kind of public gaze, and their human partners tended to be ‘let go’ for vague and spurious reasons, such as ‘bringing the company into disrepute’. Eventually, they’d been forced to leave Hollywood altogether. It was a taboo that had a frightening amount of power to ruin lives.
Fictionals paired off with each other occasionally, although rarely. The ratio of male to female Fictionals – mostly Fictionals were male, white and straight, thanks to the prejudices of the Hollywood system – meant such couplings were few and far between. When they did happen, the press found such ‘slash pairings’ utterly adorable, like a wedding between two of the cutest little puppies in the world.
Other Fictionals usually didn’t comment.
But Fictional sex – no matter who with – was a very rare thing. In the main, Fictionals were carefully designed to sublimate their sexual desires into their roles – there was nothing unusual in a Fictional falling deeply in love with an actor’s portrayal of a character, and then treating the actor his-or-herself as a completely different person, a fellow professional doing a job. For a Fictional to fall in love with a human being rather than a fellow fictional character would be a rebellion against everything they knew, against their very nature.
They just weren’t built that way.
Ralph groaned, and Niles could see the distaste in his face deepening to disgust. “Some days, I wish I was a real therapist. Some of these people need help.” He shuddered. “Try this on for size – I had a client once who walked in, dropped his trousers and started literally beating off in the chair. I tried dragging him out of it, but that just sent him over the edge. He was calling me his Daddy.”
Niles blinked. “Wait. When you say over the edge...” He shifted in the chair, nervous.
Ralph had the decency to look embarrassed. He nodded to the chair. “I did clean it. Thoroughly. With bleach. It’s been completely disinfected – hell, I’d sit in it myself.” Noticing the look on Niles’ face, he indicated the chair he’d been sitting in earlier – a stiff-backed wooden chair that looked like it would have been more at home around a dining table. “But feel free to sit in that one.”
Niles hesitated for a moment.
The author was a man of the world, of course. He didn’t want to give the impression that he was bothered by something as minor as sitting on a chair that had once been –
– he got up hurriedly.
Ralph sighed, looking at the chair with venom, and then returned to the sideboard to pour another drink. Niles opened his mouth to ask for one, but he reminded himself that it was only apple juice. What he needed after that revelation was whiskey.
Ralph took a sip of the drink and smiled. “You’re meeting Maurice after this?”
Niles fell greedily on the change of subject. “That’s right. I am indeed.” He leant back on the creaking new chair, trying to keep his voice from getting too smug. “Apparently, he’s been talking to a studio – one of the big ones, in fact. Talisman Pictures. They might just have some screenplay work lined up for me. According to Maurice, it could – could – be the big one.”
Cutner raised an eyebrow. “You’re kidding. They’re doing a Kurt Power movie?” He sounded shocked.
Niles ignored the implicit criticism in the tone. He’d been wanting to see a Kurt Power film for years, ever since he’d created the character in his exciting debut novel, Power Of Attorney: A Kurt Power Novel. (He’d dropped the lawyer angle after he’d realised how much research was involved.)
For the leading man, he could just about see Cruise, or Clooney, or Pitt. But those were second choices. He knew there was only one person who’d really be perfect for it.
He could picture the scene now.
The author watched, breathless, as the adult body of Kurt Power grew in the translation tube, day by day. Like a proud papa, he would lay his hands on the tube, gazing in wonderment at the creation of life taking place before him. A life that could not have been without the first spark of genius that had come from his very pen.
Then the first meeting with him, in some executive’s office. They shook hands, the author smiling paternally. “Welcome to the world,” he said, in gentle tones that rang with a hidden steel. Kurt Power could only look upon his Creator in silent wonder.
Niles knew that Kurt Power, when he emerged, would know all about him – what he’d done, the part he’d played in Power’s existence. He’d be grateful for that – intensely grateful. But it wouldn’t stop the two of them becoming close friends. After all, Niles reflected, Niles Golan, ground-breaking author, was just the sort of person Kurt Power would count as a close friend. Just the kind of person he’d respect.
“You’re a good Joe, Niles,” Kurt drawled, in the authentic voice of the American working man. “You sure are a gosh-darned good Joe.”
And people would see him on the streets, on sets, in gossip magazines. “That’s Kurt Power,” breathed the beautiful stenographer, her full, firm breasts heaving with undisguised admiration. “The new Fictional. Based on the Niles Golan books – have you read them? He’s like a young Thomas Pynchon, with just a hint of Ernest Hemingway,” she sighed, orgasmically.
It would be all he’d ever wanted.
Niles couldn’t help but smile. Cutner was right - it would be like being a god. A benevolent god.
He chuckled modestly.
“Well... we’ll see.”