Ben Goertzel's Strange Fiction & Art


The Exterminating Angel


Plot Summary

Ben Goertzel



The story is arranged in four Parts; Parts One and Three realistic in tone and each around 100 (typed single-spaced) pages, Parts Two and Four more hallucinatory and each around 20 pages.





Part One


Vaclav Klonowski is a Polish-American scientist, mid-thirties, obsessively committed to his work. Holding both a medical degree and a PhD in physics, he works at a hi-tech company called Neurix, running a laboratory devoted to the development of better brain scanning technology. His lab leads the world in fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) technology. He develops a radical new technique which measures the magnetic fields in the brain from a distance -- without the necessity for the subject to lie in a noisy metal tube, as is the case with conventional fMRI. His work leads to breakthroughs in the diagnosis of mental illness, and in the study of the movements of thoughts through the brain.

Obsessed with his ideas, he has no time for family life. He leaves his warm and loving first wife, Susie, and marries a fellow scientist, Amanda. His oldest son, Joseph, is a science prodigy like his father, and comes to work at the lab at age 16, while attending MIT.

Vaclav's mother was schizophrenic; his father was brilliant but highly eccentric. He is driven by a strong urge to understand the roots of mental illness -- to find a cure for irrationality by the rational means of chemistry, physics and engineering. Along these lines, he makes dramatic progress, designing a machine -- the Quark Resonance Imager or QRI, that allows him to accurately track the dynamics of thoughts in the brain. But a major conceptual problem occurs. His son, Joseph, who works in his lab with him, discovers that the true basis for mental illness is not chemical, but rather interpersonal. Mental illness is, ultimately, the consequence of our inability to understand one another.

This insight sets Vaclav in a new direction. He resolves to create an "inverse QRI" or telepathy machine -- to overcome the interpersonal gap by science. Every night he is up late working on his secret project: a computer chip, to be inserted in the brain, which will allow a person to directly receive the electromagnetic fields in other people's brains.

One night at 3 AM, a decisive vision comes to him. It is a young woman, astoundingly beautiful, who calls herself the Exterminating Angel. What she is going to exterminate, she doesn't say. But she has the face of an angel, with just a slight hint of devilishness.

The telepathy chip, however, turns out to be a mixed blessing. It drives Vaclav insane. The thoughts of others overwhelm his mind. He reads the mind of an eccentric scientist, Dr. Leztreog, who is having hallucinations involving an actress, Jamie de Plie, who looks much like the Angel. Finally he visits his son Joseph and Joseph's girlfriend Geena (who is a spitting image of the Angel), and under the influence of the telepathy chip, he melds into a kind of psychotic/ecstatic fugue state. He and Geena wind up in the hospital, comatose.

Joseph, who has been working on research related to the telepathy chip, goes to visit a mathematician named Dr. Leztreog. Leztreog has worked out a fairly complete mathematical theory of the mind, which Joseph suspects may be relevant to their work. Leztreog suggests that, while reading people's thoughts may overwhelm the human mind with disastrous results, reading people's feelings might work better. He sketches an idea for an "empathy chip", as opposed to a telepathy chip. Joseph helps Leztreog with a computer program he has been working on, involving the archetypes common to all human minds. With Joseph's help, the program spits out a visual image of the archetypal feminine: the Exterminating Angel. Inspired by the program, Leztreog goes to visit his idol, the actress Jamie de Plie; the two come together in a beautiful instance of love at first sight, but then are killed together in a car crash.

All of a sudden, Geena and Vaclav come out of their coma. Vaclav disappears. Geena and Joseph live together again, and Geena is impregnated; but after a few weeks, Geena sinks back into the coma state. Her baby boy, whom Joseph names Jamie, is healthy and clever and is raised by Joseph and his mother.



Part Two


Part Two occurs twenty years later. It reveals that Jamie, Joseph and Geena’s son, is the narrator of the book. Jamie recounts his early childhood, and then records a vision that he had the previous night – the most striking moment of his life.In this vision it is revealed to Jamie that Vaclav has been wandering through India for the past two decades. The telepathy chip has mutated his brain, rendering him partially telepathic even without the chip (which was removed in the hospital).

Vaclav’s odyessy is as follows. After leaving the hospital he flying on a half-conscious whim to India. Witnessing the incredible poverty in a visceral way, he grows ever more emotionally sensitive, and more distressed at the human condition. He visits a monastery and is disgusted by the emotional games between the monks and the priests. So much negative emotion, spiralling higher and higher: each person reacting to the negative emotions of others with more negative emotions of his or her own. These cycles of negative emotion keep us trapped in routine, inferior lives. But there is nothing we can do about it. Even he, perceiving what is going on, is helpless to stop the course of events. He befriends a sixteen-year old girl, Shamma, being forced into prostitution by her parents. He tells her of his strange angelic visions, and she nods knowingly. He sketches the Exterminating Angel for Shamma, and she turns his sketch into a beautiful painting. Spending time with Shamma's infant son, Ananda, Vaclav's state of mind improves. This very small human being, he realizes, lacks the negativity-producing complexes that possess the rest of us. Furthermore, its thought-processes are simple enough to be comprehended. Each day he feels Ananda's mind develop a little more. He is doing splendidly. But then the trance sinks back in:

he is comatose again. Shamma cares for him in her home.

But although Vaclav is inactive in the outside world, his inner life is more active than over. He is in the universe of the Exterminating Angel. She takes him travelling through abstract spaces the likes of which no human has ever seen. He senses that in some strange sense, she needs him, though he never figures out exactly why. Although she seems to come from a superior race of beings, there is something she lacks, something to do with emotions. Something which troubles Jamie to the core.



Part Three



Here we step back in time. Over the two years following Vaclav’s death, Amanda and Joseph figure out how to make an empathy chip, following Leztreog's suggestion. The government gets wind of the invention and, naturally, they wish to use the chip for military purposes, and threaten to take the chip by force if it is not given freely. However, Amanda proposes a bargain. If they will fund and facilitate her proposed experiments implanting the chip in human infants, she will allow the military to develop the chip as a tool for espionage. Otherwise, she will destroy the existing chip and all pertinent information. The bargain is accepted. Joseph is disgusted by Amanda's proposed experiments on infants, but he is under her sexual spell -- the two have become involved, since the relapse of Geena and the disappearance of Vaclav -- and he goes along. Meanwhile, Geena is comatose, but she gives birth to Joseph's son, who he names Jamie, and who is raised by Joseph and Amanda together. Jamie is the narrator of the book!

Amanda implants the empathy chips in the brains of a group of fifty orphan babies. She raises these babies in a plush laboratory/nursery, and monitors their development. These babies grow up as a kind of group mind, with full knowledge of one another's feelings, and substantial knowledge of one another's thoughts. By the time the babies reach adulthood, it is clear that Amanda's experiment was a success. Amanda has succeeded in taking a group of orphans, many drug-addicted from birth, and producing a population of superior people. These new people, the Empaths, are the most mentally healthy human beings ever known. Public opinion, however, condemns her experiments, and views Amanda as a child-torturer. Due to increasing military activity worldwide, anti-science sentiment is at an all-time high, and the concept of implanting chips in infants' brains is generally viewed as abhorrent.

The Empaths are so sensitive that they find interaction with ordinary humans difficult; they tend to keep to themselves. One Empath, however, interacts regularly with outsiders -- a girl named Moisha, who combines an extraordinary intelligence with an almost superhuman ability to heal and soothe. Moisha breaks off with her Empath boyfriend and begins a passionate love affair with Jamie. Though lacking an empathy chip implant, David is remarkably empathetic nonetheless -- being the child, in a way of the Exterminating Angel -- and the relationship is a successful one. Moisha and Jamie have a beautiful daughter named Julianne.

Julianne is much like her mother, but dreamier, more artistically inclined. As she grows older, Amanda realizes that her face is familiar. She bears a remarkable resemblance to Vaclav's Exterminating Angel.

As time goes by, relations between Amanda and the military grow more and more strained. NASA has created a huge, spherical, manned space station called The Reagan, capable of supporting up to 500 people. Amanda applies for permission to carry out experiments on board the Reagan. In a weightless environment, she feels, it will be possible to grow more effective telepathy chips. However, her request is turned down, for unclear reasons. The Empaths become increasingly uncomfortable with the political situation. The U.S.-China war is escalating, and Amanda senses that America's new boldness on the military front is due in some way to the use of the empathy chip. She wonders whether perhaps the military have found a way to control thoughts and emotions, instead of just monitoring them.

Finally, nuclear weapons are dropped on the Chinese countryside. The Empaths, along with many others, seethe with outrage. Moisha leads the Empaths on a journey to the White House, intent on convincing the President of his errors. But they are repelled by the Secret Service, and threatened with extermination. Amanda's research programme is cancelled. After some complicated political machinations, the group manages to leave the country. At Jamie's urging, they make their way to the jungles of Papua New Guinea, where they establish a colony of Empaths. They increase their numbers by taking local babies and (with full consent of the somewhat confused parents) implanting empathy chips in their brains. Far away from civilization, they attempt to establish a healthy society, free from the escalating cycles of negative emotion that characterize the non-Empath world.

Amanda, Moisha and the others dream of a future when everyone is Empathic. But it seems clear that the present governments of the world have no interest in this possibility. The Empaths content themselves with building their own private Utopia, and conducting research into new methods for spreading empathy through the rest of the population.

Having had the benefit of fully "empathic" upbringings, Julianne's generation of Empaths are even more psychologically perfected than their parents. But after a time, there is trouble in paradise. The increasingly war-torn world cannot be escaped entirely. Someone has poisoned the colony's water supply, and several Empaths die.

Despite repeated attempts, the Empaths have made no fundamental progress in the science of telepathy, beyond Vaclav Klonowski's original breakthroughs. The original Empaths do not seem inclined to scientific work, or creative work of any kind; and the second-generation Empaths seem even less so. Amanda speculates that this is directly connected to their empathetic ability, that perhaps the urge to create derives from a feeling of emotional isolation, which the empaths, by definition, lack. Only Moisha and Julianne seem to have any "creative spark." And neither of them are particularly talented at scientific innovation.

When more Empaths die from a second bout of poisoning, a faction advocates abandoning the colony. Moisha disappears without telling anyone. She sets off to India, in search of Vaclav Klonowski. He is very old, and still catatonic, but cared for lovingly by Shamma and Ananda (who have been living well on Vaclav's money). Moisha implants a new, slightly improved empathy chip in his brain, and, to her surprise, Vaclav comes out of his psychosis. He is lucid, full of strange visions and stories, and eager to visit the colony. Shamma, now a mature and very spiritual woman, warns him strongly against the trip. He hesitates, feeling he owes her something. But in the end, he knows he has to help the Empaths. He feels a deep emotional affinity with Moisha. He leaves with Shamma's blessing.

When Moisha returns with Vaclav, the colony is in chaos. There have been more deaths by poisoning. Everyone has packed up and is ready to leave -- but there is no destination. There seems to be a general inability to plan or function. Vaclav recognizes what is going on: the colony as a whole is going insane. The colony is recapitulating the pattern of his individual life.

Vaclav and Amanda take up their romantic relationship again, after a forty year hiatus. But Vaclav finds he has no interest in her anymore. Moisha is deeply in love with Vaclav, but is married to his grandson Jamie, and suppresses her feelings. Vaclav and Julianne are drawn together inexorably. They come together in the night, and she speaks to him softly, just like the Exterminating Angel with whom he spent the past forty years of his life. As young as she is, she seems to understand everything. She is entranced by this man who seems to live nine-tenths in another world.

One night Julianne falls ill, and Vaclav, sitting by her bedside, is visited by his Angel again. Afterwards he hatches an idea: they will steal the Reagan, convert it into a starship, and leave the Earth's orbit entirely. David, the most technically knowledgeable in the colony, verifies that the idea is feasible. Several scientists sympathetic to Amanda are currently on board the ship. All that is required is a vehicle: a way to get to the Reagan in the first place.

Amanda hurries to arrange things. The Empaths are to leave on two semi-stolen Australian space shuttles, from the West Australian desert. The Empaths are ecstatic. Vaclav speaks with fervor about dying among the stars. At the last minute, however, he has a cold feeling inside. He thinks of Shamma and Ananda, and of his children in the U.S., who still think him dead. He decides to risk persecution and stay behind. Julianne stays along with him. Desperate, Amanda urges him not to back out, but even she can't convince him. He wishes her luck, and with warmth and regret, he watches the shuttles blast off.

Thirty seconds later, he sees one of the shuttles blasted out of the air. Rigged it with explosives, apparently. Most likely by someone associated with the US -- Australia being part of the China Alliance. A few moments later there is a second explosion. The second shuttle is not destroyed, but badly damaged. Its tailfin tumbles down, and it begins flying erratically.

Vaclav crouches in the desert, tearful and broken. "My God. Shamma was right...."

Julianne tries to soothe him. But as they sit there, they see a mushroom cloud in the distance. Another nuclear weapon exploding. "From the East," says Julianne. "Sydney or Melbourne."

Vaclav nods silently. Thinking about what, exactly, the Exterminating Angel is exterminating.



Part Four



This final, brief part occurs in the same hallucinatory universe as Part Three.

Although the physical universe has witnessed the destruction of humanity, Vaclav, Geena, Joseph, Leztreog, Jamie de Plie and the Empaths live on, with the Exterminating Angel, in a surreal, virtual space beyond the spacetime continuum – the realm from which the physical universe emanated in the first place.