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Yuri Zalevski

Photographic technology has reached a plateau, its limit defined by the acuity of the human eye. Images exceed the maximum resolution of adult vision, and tandem printing innovations have perfected their reproduction. For seventy years, there have been no significant advancements in the field of two-dimensional representation. My entire life.

Taken for granted by historians, textbook writers, and the general populace was the sense of time that changes in technologically mediated photographic style conveyed. Radiant in the present, colors faded with temporal distance—saturation was shorthand for immediacy.

Seventy years of present time, vivid and unrelenting. Neurologically, we’re not equipped: information-without-hierarchy batters us, and urgency assaults without distinction, from decades in the past. The archives are one long anxiety attack, worlds alien in content but not appearance, their dangers interpreted as proximal by the simian mind.

The picture in my textbook has been artificially aged, printed in false sepia to relieve the stress of consciously relegating it to the distant past. In some ways, that’s unnecessary; it depicts a modern impossibility. Seven scientists, four men and three women, grin softly through the lens, posing behind a row of test tubes. The clipping includes a headline: THE TEAM THAT WANTS TO MAKE YOU SMARTER. Early clinical trials were underway, and the press was uniformly cheerful, out of ignorance or lack of imagination, or infatuation with the potential of germline therapies, many of which showed promise. I study the faces of the women in the photo, scanning for doubt, or fear, any evidence of oracular clarity; and I wonder whether they had daughters.

Years later, newsroom positivity had soured, poisoned by tangential medical failures, preoccupied with invisible long-term side effects and the dangers of genetic homogeneity. The product, a Y-chromosomal edit that near-doubled the intelligence of male fetuses, succeeded in spite of popular suspicion. Governments raced to subsidize it, fearful their opponents would breed armies of geniuses; the future belonged to the least hesitant bureaucracies.

The spread of technology has accelerated as secret infrastructures creep through the earth, building over each other, every layer supported by its ancestors. Railroads, highways, power lines, undersea cables, cell towers, the jewelled net of satellites enclosing our planet—the ground is porous, perforated by civilization’s ligaments. While fifty years before the only global product had been cigarettes, now there were cigarettes, Coke, cellphones, and CRISPR, available in every village.

Society was unprepared for the consequences of shifting the average male intelligence up by 80 points. Gangs of idle boys terrorized their kindergartens, bored by material they had long surpassed. Childhood mischief skyrocketed in competence and complexity. Schools struggled to adapt to the chasm between ordinary and edited students; they were separated, they skipped grades, they were sent home to study under equally helpless parents. Most colleges proved incapable of educating genuinely gifted students; certainly not in such numbers, once-scarce geniuses flooding every campus. There were other concerns: falling gender ratios, dwindling numbers of female students keeping up with their male peers. It was quickly made illegal to selectively abort daughters, but many parents found a way. I know I would, and I wish I had been.

As serial generations of prodigies inherited institutional responsibility, the world heaved a sigh of relief. Tensions between nations, classes, and clans dissipated, relieved by new willingness to cooperate and the prosocial scaffolding of shared intellectual pursuits. Nervously, humanity waited for what seemed inevitable: an analogous solution for female fetuses.

I’m waiting, though it seems the rest of society has moved on. Without these archives, it might be possible to accept the silent selection barricading me from knowledge, inclusion, power; to reconcile being locked out of the higher reaches of human potential. I’m not treated poorly, I just fail the Renkao, the XSATs, every entrance exam of significance. I am not denied opportunity; the limits imposed by biology are too great, or my dedication is too small. Harassment and violence are unheard of, and my male peers have always treated me as an equal, never with cruelty or contempt. Never even with pity. At night, I pore over my discipline’s texts and cry, too proud to buy one of the simplified digests for women and children, too stupid to untangle its complexity. I neglect politics, knowing my participation would only lower the quality of the system. By every metric, this is the best and safest time in history to be a woman.

Why do I exist? If they had any compassion they would lobotomize us—I would prefer it to this ornamental hell. Even the most vulgar purposes have been automated: vocaloids, sexbots, artificial wombs. Those who would debase themselves for meaning find every subservient role occupied by machines. We are orbiting real life, the coddled useless slag of civilization.

There are exceptions; every girl with quasi-masculine competence is stolen away by laboratories, her childhood turned into an experiment, sacrificed at the altar of the puzzle. So few of them, and never enough data points to track the pattern of their gift.

I don’t want to be alive, or accept inferiority with grace. I daydream of conspiracy, cabals of oppressors, revolution—non-extant, cartoonish, impossible. I beg the world for narrative or meaning or a locus I can fight, but there’s no demiurge, no evil architect. Nothing to rally under, nothing to hate, just a chromosomal quirk. Flawed, not broken, defeated in the womb, genetically fated to fall short again and again. The past exists to taunt me; equality’s parabolic path is a bad joke, the shift from perceived to biological inferiority too cruel. Human rights are pure condescension; we’re not on the same levels of personhood. We could be different species. I could be a child, or an animal.

My suicide attempts have all been frustrated, and I’ve been admonished, as though members of the secretarial makework class were actually valuable. What false autonomy I had, as a unit in a system too complex to navigate, has been constricted, cinched between hospital bands and pages of the DSM. The clinic I am confined to is staffed by men and robots, pill-printers and crawling, intelligent cameras that move across the ceiling like white spiders. The patients are women.

They have their own rambling problems; voices in the walls, hysterical terrors, mania, agoraphobia, addictions to sex and video games and eating dirt. Unlike mine, their troubles aren’t rooted in perceiving the world as it is, beyond the veneer of liberty and equality, into the cruel fraternity that nature has designed to exclude me from competing. I find no kinship with them. The doctors are sympathetic, and I think some of them even understand—regardless, they can offer no solace beyond the chemical. They are too kind to resent, but my envy is palpable. One, a trans woman, is especially gentle. Perhaps because her own frustrations mirror mine, our cognitive distance sabotaging her authenticity. I suspect that my case will be used to promote stricter guidelines for embryonic personality editing; “pride” would seem to be a harmful trait for the fairer sex.

I can’t fault their logic; after all, I want to be erased. The world would be better off without this suffering, the outliers vulnerable to it trimmed from existence. Even so, I won’t accept the suggested neurosurgeries, procedures that could change my brain and alleviate this obsession. I will live as myself, or not at all; that this self wants to die makes the choice simple. I have nothing to contribute to this civilization, and nobody will mourn. People like me should be allowed to opt out.

Eventually, I will succeed. Visions of death become clearer with each suffocation, awful and vivid, so bright they drown out the hospital ceilings when I wake up. No padded room is foolproof, and I have nothing to do but plan, visit the library and pass colored lenses over the archives, as if that could bring me closer to the past. I think of the world, terrible because I exist, and of other terrible worlds, which exist because I imagine them: self-destructive utopias, righteous tyrannies, joyful slave races, and ungrateful ones, every distasteful possibility suddenly real. Individuals lusting for power despite being ill-suited to it; generosity extended to evil, cruelty democratically overwhelming kindness; planets where humans have become like termites, purposeful and segregated; or like birds, all the same. Subtle speciations that pass unnoticed until it is too late. Cullings which take place before conception, before birth, after birth; forced sterilization, abortion, and the world better for it; we can’t just let everyone exist. On one hand, civilizations like clockwork, efficient, content, stagnant; on the other, anarchic growth, in-fighting and hatred, self-determination in all its hubris and chaos. I think, sometimes, that I have glimpsed the future—and I will happily slide into darkness rather than witness it firsthand.

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