Wednesday, 2 December 2009


I think some people genuinely thought I would live forever. 93 years old, well over 200 films – Was a man like that truly just a man, or something greater? Yes, in the minds of some, Donald Sutherland was destined to go on and on. But of course I was - am - just a man and after 93 years, 7 months and 12 days my weary body finally succumbed to the demands of time. I died peacefully in my big old house amongst the auburn leaves of Vermont, my dog mourning me at my bedside. I found out later that over 2000 people had attended my funeral in the wind and sideways rain.

Depending on what you believe, you might expect to end up in glory or in damnation, perhaps Nirvana, or even just to rot in the ground. None of these applied to me, it would seem. The next thing I knew I was alive and well - in a way - entombed immortal in a 2 tonne sarcophagus wrought from carbon fibre, Kevlar and steel.

In a flush of youthful enthusiasm I had, some 60 years earlier, turned my future corpse over to the forlorn hope that was cryonics: Be frozen until such a time when I could be successfully reanimated and reintegrated into society. Now, this was all very Messianic and somehow fitting for an arrogant 30-something riding the crest of his 1960's Hollywood stardom. However it did not really figure as I lay in my bed dying of old age, irritable bowel syndrome, and in no small measure a broken heart. I passed peacefully in my sleep on a Tuesday evening and woke up again on a Wednesday morning, 8 days later.


The whole thing was rather surreal at first, I'll admit. No, not being alive – though that was confusing as well. I woke up, opened my eyes and as I looked around in disbelief I simply felt numb. I tried to move my arms but could feel nothing, and the same with my legs. It wasn't like I was tied down or restrained in any way - I just didn't feel anything at all. Nothing. But I did not panic.

“Mr Sutherland,” said a man whose face I didn't recognise, “My name is Dr Hounslow.” He didn't look much like a doctor to me, and this didn't look much like a hospital. More like a warehouse or some kind of loading bay. Bare metal floors, brutal strip lighting, and there was I in the centre of a hasty clearing. The strange new man bustled past me with his feet clanging on the floor and I thought I should be cold, but I wasn't. “Right Mr Sutherland,” said this doctor guy eventually, checking computer screens and printouts arranged about me, “If you'll just bear with me.”

Bear with him?

“Bear with you?” But no sound came out. I asked again, and again, but I couldn't feel my lips and I couldn't hear myself speak.

“Hold on Mr Sutherland, I'll just enable the voice transceivers.”


“WHAT?” I boomed suddenly, my voice reverberating around the room. He looked startled and turned a dial anti-clockwise.

“The voice transceivers – to decode your voice print and thought patterns from Broca's Area – where speech comes from.” And then he paused. “Ah. I think I'd better explain.”

“I think you'd better had.” This time I was very slightly quieter.

And so, Dr Hounslow reminded me of that time in an anonymous office in a downtown clinic that I signed away my death. 1967. Such a long time ago – he wasn't even born. I could of course have opted out again, but to be frank I simply forgot. They were just honouring the last wishes I had expressed regarding the matter. Dr Hounslow then apologised for the somewhat clinical nature of my awakening.

“Most people know exactly what they're letting themselves in for and aren't disorientated at all,” he said with a shrug, and that was that. I always thought his bedside manner left something to be desired. He explained that, given my status (and the comparatively small number of willing participants in the program) I had been selected to be experimentally installed in the prototype exoskeleton.

At this point, I had no idea what a 'prototype exoskeleton' was. He directed my gaze to a series of screens displaying the views seen by several cameras trained on me. I had paid them no notice before, as I did not see the relevance of a bunch of monitors focussed on a huge, shiny black ellipse. From ground to tip it – Me, as it turned out – was easily 8 feet high and was made of a sleek and impossibly hard black material. Not really metal but not plastic either - I've never managed to truly understand it.

There was an elegance in the finish, the gentle curves – an aesthete would find me appealing I'm sure, albeit in an “enormous hulking robot” way. Remember that time you first watched 2001 and saw the monoliths? I am an egg monolith.

The whole construction seemed to rest delicately on 4 legs, which I was assured were actually in no way delicate but could kick down a brick wall if I so desired. At that point I couldn't imagine quite why anyone would want to kick down a brick wall, but it was comforting to know it was possible. The whole thing looked faintly ridiculous, as you might imagine, but apparently it – sorry, I - was the cutting edge of technology. I suppose I still am the cutting edge of technology, but I'll get to that in a bit.

“So, I'm inside this thing?”

“Well, your consciousness is – and that's what matters.” He chuckled. I did not chuckle back. My body, of course, had been legitimately buried in front of those 2000 people I told you about, but it was my brain – my thoughts, my personality – that had been saved. Like saving a file to a USB stick, he informed me.

So he was comparing my brain, the summation of everything I had ever experienced, thought, seen or done, the core of my identity, to a file on a computer?

Yes, yes he was.

And that was that really. They encouraged me to try to live a normal life, to interact, to contribute. But what would they know about being 'normal'? Have they ever been encased in a giant black egg with enough lifting power to throw a truck? No, they have not. I can't go for a meal in a restaurant, play the piano, enjoy a scotch; I can't even do any more movies. So explain to me just how I'm supposed to go back to living a 'normal' life?

About a year after this event (It always seems odd to say 'a year after my death') I left Vermont and decided to go New Mexico. I stomped through West Virginia and lingered near Kentucky, before splashing around the Mississippi for a while. In general I dawdled about and took in the sights. Never before had I been able to travel with such freedom and such alacrity. All the relevant authorities knew about me so I was rarely bothered, and in general I stayed out of the limelight and away from the more densely populated areas. It was glorious. Some people were shocked, sure – imagine how you might react to the silhouette of an 8 foot high egg padding through your corn field at dawn. Thankfully my outer shell is completely impervious to shotgun rounds.

Sometimes I would turn to the humans and proudly exclaim “It's OK! I'm the ghost of Donald Sutherland!” They would see my face projected on the front of the chassis and either nod and go inside, or be completely freaked. Ha!

This all happened 900 years ago though. If nothing else, I would say time is certainly on my side.

I haven't seen much of anyone in the last, say, 400 years. In 2517 I stood on a remote outcrop in the Rocky mountains with my vision set to 500x Zoom (Flash Suppressor Enabled) and watched as mankind accidentally and repeatedly nuked itself from orbit. I heard the cries of the innocent and felt the heat and percussive repeats of the explosions; The human race managed to wipe itself out almost entirely in under a day. It was morbidly exhilarating to be buffeted by the nuclear winds and to feel the gentle rain of fallout ash on my carapace, as soft and perversely pure as a snowfall.

When you've been around as long as I have, you'll learn to appreciate the little things.

A few years later I made friends with a fox cub. I happened to be in a forest in Yellowstone when I heard (Or rather, my medium-range sensors alerted me to) a creature barking and screaming, being attacked by a bear or something else huge and grotesque. I tramped over to see what was going on out of macabre curiosity. I arrived in the thicket some ten minutes later but the assailants were gone and the mother was as good as dead. Guts hanging out, blood trickling from her mouth, eyes glazing over – there was nothing to be done. I crushed her head under my foot and she died in an instant.

Only then as I turned to leave did I see her cub hiding in a tree stump. The cub looked up at me with her innocent eyes and I stared back. She did not seem afraid, but simply curious. Dismissively I turned and stomped off, partly because I value my solitude and partly from shame at what I had done. But the cub followed me. I passed through a cutting and began to splash along a small brook, and few minutes later I turned to find this little fox cub still scampering along behind me, skipping from bank to bank, tail raised high in delight. Soon I left the stream and headed up a nearby hill, and still she followed. Eventually I paused at a pleasant vantage point high above the forest; the cub appeared beside me and rested on her haunches. Together we watched the sunset.

And so we stayed together for a time. I helped her hunt when she needed it, and let her use my great hulking form as a shelter from the elements. My hull was not as gleaming nor as elegant as it used to be – a millennium of hard use had left its surface slightly dulled, and if you looked very carefully you might even find the odd scratch. But I generally went where I wanted to, and mostly the cub followed. Sometimes she would disappear for days and then spring herself upon me in surprise, miles away from where we had parted company. She would run around and through my four stumpy metal legs and I could feel her fur brush against my sensors and her tail sweep past my actuators. Hello large machine, she seemed to say, I missed you.

A tired old man like me doesn’t want for much. One evening she curled up into the cleft of my foot and just dozed there for a while. I didn't dare move for fear of waking her. As we basked together in the late summer sun, I almost felt human.

Image by Jim Unwin

1 comment:

  1. Love it!

    Great going Jonny this story is awesome!