Sometimes I play around with an idea for a novel -- or more likely, a novella -- about life after death. The idea is that a female paranormal investigator is on the run from a mysterious conspiracy. She hooks up with a man who, as it happens, has a background in Special Forces or black ops -- sort of a Jack Bauer type. The hero is skeptical of her claims, though not quite as skeptical as he appears, because he once had a paranormal experience of his own, which he's never been able to process. He's also just cynical enough to believe that some persons in authority might not be eager to let out the paradigm-shifting news of personal immortality (though I must admit, the motivation of the bad guys in my story is not entirely clear to me). As he helps her elude and outwit her pursuit, he gradually starts to believe her story and to share his own history with her.
Will I ever write this book? Almost certainly, no. It's not my kind of thing. I don't like conspiracy plots, or stories where characters are on the run. I also don't like thrillers that are crammed with exposition, as this one would have to be; it could only work if at least some of the evidence for life after death was incorporated into the dialogue, and this would tend to slow down the story. As I mentioned above, I'm not quite sure what the conspiracy's motivation would be. And while my suspense novels are far-fetched, they are not as high-concept as this.
So I'm thinking it's a non-starter. Still, the idea can be fun to fool around with. Today I wrote a dialogue exchange between the man and the woman -- no description, just dialogue. I imagine them in a car, speeding away from the scene of some dangerous action where they met. The man is driving, and the woman -- shaken by a close call with her pursuers -- is trying to pull herself together. They've been talking about her research into the afterlife.
In this excerpt, which commences in the middle of their conversation, the man speaks first.
"You're saying there's evidence for this stuff? Actual scientific evidence?"
"There's evidence. Whether or not it's scientific depends on how you define that term. Is field anthropology a science? Most of the evidence of life after death is of that type -- field reports based on interviews and observations. It's not the same thing as laboratory-based science. How do you study the afterlife in a lab? There have been some controlled studies of mediumship, but that's about it."
"Mediumship? So you think some people can talk to the dead? Like making a phone call to the great beyond?"
"I think most of us can pick up on telepathic impressions from both the living and the dead, but our abilities are so limited and undeveloped we hardly ever notice. Some gifted individuals, though, are basically prodigies who can turn those talents on and off almost at will. It's like musical talent. Most people can hum a tune or sing a little or learn to play an instrument with sufficient practice. A few are tone deaf. And a very few are prodigies like Mozart, who can compose symphonies in their head."
"Maybe the psychic prodigies are just exceptionally good at faking it."
"That's what testing is for. You learn the tricks used by mentalists and then devise test conditions that circumvent those tricks. For instance, mentalists employ cold reading -- they watch for the sitter's reactions and play off subtle verbal and physical cues. You can eliminate cold reading from the equation by allowing no contact between the medium and the sitter. You can put them in separate rooms, or at different ends of a telephone call with the sitter's end of the call muted. You can use a proxy sitter--a stand-in who knows nothing about the deceased and so can't give away any information. Or suppose the mentalist uses hot reading -- advance research into the sitter's family background. You can rule that out by keeping the sitter's identity secret, bringing in a new sitter under an assumed name for an unscheduled appointment, or even bringing the medium to a foreign country where she knows nobody."
"People have done all that?"
"All that, and more. It's amazing, really, the lengths that the more thorough investigators will go to. They have to anticipate every skeptical objection."
"But the skeptics haven't been won over, have they?"
"Some have. Some of the leading researchers in this area started out as a full-bore skeptics. But others are unpersuaded. Perhaps they're unpersuadable. Some people just aren't open to certain possibilities. Like the 19th century physicist Helmholtz, who said he would not believe in ESP even if he saw conclusive proof with his own eyes. He would rather disbelieve his own senses, he said. How can you convince somebody like that?"
"Sounds like a rare case."
"Not as rare as you might think. But the bigger problem is that very little of this evidence is widely known. Scientific journals refuse to publish it, even if the studies meet or exceed all the normal criteria. Media reports belittle it. Popular entertainment trivializes it. Even in casual conversation, people are embarrassed to talk about it. Some of the researchers themselves draw back from the logical implications of their own work. It's like there's a taboo about this stuff -- as, in many societies, there is."
"Taboos are pretty rare in the modern world."
"Taking empirical evidence for life after death seriously may be one of the last of them."
"Okay, whatever. This is all very interesting, but it doesn't explain why people are trying to kill you. Any thoughts on that?"
"You'll think I'm crazy."
"Oh, we're way past that point."
"Fair enough. I think something in my work has certain people worry. Scared, even."
"I started thinking that one way to definitively prove postmortem survival would be to build a device that allows contact with -- for want of a better term -- spirits."
"Like a ham radio?"
"So let me guess. You built this thing and started getting radio transmissions from Cleopatra and Napoleon and Princess Di --"
"I didn't build it. There's no working model. There's only a schematic, and even that is incomplete. I don't know if it can be completed, or if it would work. But maybe someone thinks it will."
"I thought you were a psychologist, not an engineer."
"I am. So how'd I come up with the schematic, right? … Oh hell, you already think I'm nuts. I practiced automatic writing."
"You let the spirits work through you and draw the diagram while you were in a trance?"
"I'm surprised you know what automatic writing it is."
"I saw it in a horror movie. A pretty bad one. Which is what your story sounds like. Who'd you channel, anyway?"
"I'm afraid so. Toward the end of his life, according to some accounts, Edison worked on a machine that would facilitate communication with the deceased. Now he's purportedly using me as an instrument to build a refined version of his design."
"I like the use of the word 'purportedly.' It shows the proper spirit of scientific skepticism."
"What do you want me to say? I know nothing about electronics, but while entranced, over a series of sessions, I produced a detailed blueprint full of terms and details that are utterly meaningless to me. I don't know where this material originated. If I receive a mental impression that Thomas Edison is behind it, I have to accept that -- provisionally. And why not Edison? Who would be better suited to the task?"
"It's funny because you talk like a lunatic, but you don't look or act like one. You seem almost rational."
"Thanks a bunch."
"But you still haven't explained why the bad guys are after you. Let's say this gizmo that you and Tom have dreamed up actually works. That's a good thing, no? Who's against immortality?"
"I don't know. That's what I can't figure out. If what I'm doing has no value, then I'm no threat to anyone. If it does have value -- I still don't see how I'm a threat. News like this would only make the world a better place, wouldn't it?"
"Probably…. Of course, there are some people who don't want the world to be a better place."
"The ones who like it just the way it is."