A 12-year-old boy develops a deadly brain tumor that inadvertently floods his system with Leu-enkephalin, the neuropeptide that triggers happiness. Unwaveringly optimistic at his chance of survival, the risky surgery that saves his life also ends the euphoric bliss, leaving his brain with a cavernous hole where the pleasure centers used to be. The 18 years of sadness that follow are a downward spiral of despair, and as a last resort he agrees to another treatment that gives him conscious control over what makes him happy. As he attempts to re-enter the world beyond the hospitals and his gloomy apartment, he faces the ultimate dilemma of self-control ... how happy would you be if you could make yourself as happy as you want?
Greg Egan specialises in hard science fiction stories with mathematical and quantum ontology themes, including the nature of consciousness. Other themes include genetics, simulated reality, posthumanism, mind transfer, sexuality, artificial intelligence, and the superiority of rational naturalism over religion.
He is a Hugo Award winner (and has been shortlisted for the Hugos three other times), and has also won the John W Campbell Memorial Award for Best Novel. Some of his earlier short stories feature strong elements of supernatural horror, while due to his more popular science fiction he is known within the genre for his tendency to deal with complex and highly technical material (including inventive new physics and epistemology) in an unapologetically thorough manner.
Egan is a famously reclusive author when it comes to public appearances, he doesn't attend science fiction conventions, doesn't sign books and there are no photos available of him on the web.
"In September 2004, not long after my twelfth birthday, I entered a state of almost constant happiness. Whenever I ran - and I ran everywhere - it felt good." So speaks Greg Egan's protagonist to kick off this highly imaginative, philosophical forty-pager entitled Reasons to be Cheerful.
Such a joy to be a happy, energetic twelve-year-old. But then crisis hits - as thirty-year-old narrator Mark recounts, a MRI scan revealed there was a specific reason for his constantly feeling elated: pressure from a brain tumor caused the chemistry in his brain to release a flood of endorphins.
Something had to be done - and soon. Surgery was the first option but, unfortunately, the odds were not good: only one in every three patients walked out of the hospital. Mark's parents did the research and found a center offering a new treatment: genetically engineered herbs could be injected into the cerebrospinal fluid with no need of surgery. The survival rate was 80 % (please keep in mind we're talking near future and this is science fiction).
Mark underwent treatment: over the course of the next weeks, the tumor shriveled and Mark was finally sent home. However, huge problem: from that day forward, nothing in life gave Mark any pleasure, not even so much as a shred of pleasure. Everything he did was tainted with an overwhelming sense of dread and shame. He tells us he might as well have been staring at the gates of Auschwitz.
So it goes for poor Mark for the next 18 years. 18 whole years! Taking drugs only made him feel like a zombie. Then one day sitting at the computer in his small apartment, Mark opens an email: he's been contacted by a center in South Africa where a Dr. Durrani has created a new, experimental device for people suffering as Mark is suffering, a computerized device inserted into the brain to regulate mood, pleasure and happiness (again, keep in mind this is Greg Egan science fiction).
Long story short: Mark plays the odds and flies to South Africa, meets with Dr. Durrani and undergoes the procedure. In the recovery room Durrani and four of her students are gathered at the foot of his bed. Durrani asks Mark how he's feeling. We read:
"I was lost for words. These people's faces were loaded with so much significance, so many sources of fascination, that I had no way of singling out any one factor: they all appeared wise, ecstatic, beautiful, reflective, attentive, compassionate, tranquil, vibrant . . . a white noise of qualities, all positive, but ultimately incoherent."
In the subsequent days, Mark has many reflections on his various experiences of intense, ecstatic pleasure: bathing in the beauty of classical music and great art, finding his food scrumptious, the faces of those around him angelic, the mere fact that he's alive - complete bliss.
But is his experience real? Is he really Mark? Turns out, Durrani offers Mark the technology whereby he can regulate the amount of pleasure he experiences: for example: if he wants he can decrease the pleasure of music and sounds yet retain the highest visual pleasure. Same goes for things like taste, smell, tactile sensations, social situations.
Let me stop here and ask: if you were Mark, would you decrease the pleasure you experience? If you yourself were offered such a procedure to increase your pleasure in life, would you take it? If you could regulate your pleasure, what specifically would you increase?
Reasons to be Cheerful is included in Greg Egan's short story collection Luminous.
Australian author Greg Egan, born 1961 - Greg takes pride in not having any photos of himself available on the web. This photo is the way I picture the outstanding SF novelist writing at his computer.
"I had no doubt, now, that Durrani really had packed every last shred of the human capacity for joy into my skull. But to claim any part of it, I'd have to swallow the fact - more deeply than the tumour had ever forced me to swallow it - that happiness itself meant nothing. Life without it was unbearable, but as an end in itself it was not enough. I was free to choose its causes, and to be happy with my choices, but whatever I felt once I'd bootstrapped my new self into existence, the possibility would remain that all my choices had been wrong." - Greg Egan, Reasons to be Cheerful
As we pass into the reality of a cyberpunk future, and stories about brain-hacking move away from down on their luck noir-types in trench coats infiltrating space stations, it starts to feel like the future of the genre will simply consist of various rewrites of Flowers for Algernon--which I am surprisingly okay with. Certainly, we're bound to get uninspired rehashes, like Speed of Dark, but we'll also get more interesting looks, like this one from the famously anonymous Aussie Hugo-winner.
Appropriately enough, I found this story on my Kindle with no recollection of where I'd gotten it or what it was meant to be--jut another overlooked blip in the system. For the first few pages, I assumed it was some Gawker-style first person confessional that I'd saved for later--until it became obvious that the 'cutting edge' medical science being discussed is somewhat beyond our present capabilities.
The fact that Egan can so readily capture the confessional style without pushing it too far speaks of his prose skills, as he delivers on the timely theme of 'what makes a mood disorder?' Instead of a journey through IQ, as in Algernon, we get one through emotional capability, from one extreme to the other, and Egan does an excellent job of hitting the right notes throughout.
His final question: what might we choose for ourselves, if we could choose our own emotional reactions (or would we be able to make the choice at all, without sliding into a self-destructive spiral of highs and lows) is poignant, and I would have liked to see him push it a little further, make it a little dirtier and uglier--instead it's left largely as an open question.
But even without that final push, it's a solid story, and I'm glad that I found it--or that it found me.
One of Egan's greats, one that keeps coming back to me over and over. It may be the most thought-provoking short story I've ever read. I also feel like it's not just intellectual hypothesizing -- the ideas in this story are relevant today, and are rapidly becoming more and more important every day.
Read up on happiness set point theory and associated controversy. Our reasons to be happy are not at all what we imagine them to be, and the questions the protagonist is forced to address in this story are not hypothetical. Also, consider the evolution of computer games to tickle our short term pleasure centers ever more effectively, how similar those games are after you've understood what's going on, and how hollow you can feel after setting one down. Heck, just consider a drug like cocaine, in a hypothetical scenario where you hurt no one to acquire it and never ran out. What reasons for being cheerful would _you_ accept as valid?
This is one of Egan's best shorts, and if you've never read it, you should. A fine entry point to his short fiction. Collected in Luminous (Collected Stories #2) https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1..., which is available for Kindle for $3. You'll get your money's worth from this story alone. Trust me on this.
For many months I've had this short story saved on my desktop, and I don't recall how I encountered it in the first place. Initially I wondered if this was an autobiographical tale, as it all seemed like something that could really have happened. Shortly after, technology that is as of now still impossible emerged and the science fiction became more palpable. Nevertheless, for all the currently impossible things that happened in the story, it all felt surprisingly, dare I say 'worryingly', convincing, as though our world could be on the very precipice of such possibilities actually occuring. Egan's confident use of neuroscientific jargon (this amateur was convinced at least) and his matter-of-fact style dressed the story with a strong air of realism. By the end, I was left with a hollow sensation in my stomach, not sure what to actually feel. This, I believe, is a hallmark of decent science fiction: to seem urgently nearby, and to gnaw at the reader's comfort.
Strikingly, each 'condition' (so to speak) that the protagonist experiences is incredibly fascinating, philosophically compelling, and agonising to contemplate. I will keep mulling over what 'the self' is and how it is shaped for quite some time, I'm sure. I can easily imagine this story becoming a great and unfortunate Black Mirror episode, and I mean that as a compliment.
Excellent short, speculative fiction work. Solid understanding of some of the potential science involved without overly egregious technobabble. Lovely ideas explored, while none were too shocking I was definitely intrigued and inspired to muse to myself on some of the implications. Mr. Egan uses his narrative very well, and knows how to intersperse good, visceral detail with character thought to smoothly encourage the flow of the reader. I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for his other short works.
An interesting short story on a boy who could not be unhappy, as a brain tumour swamped his brain with happy neural transmitters. After the tumour was cured, the unfortunate side effect was that all the areas of the brain able to bind to any happy neural transmitters was destroyed. Thus started 18 years of depression where nothing can be enjoyed.
A new treatment meant that it was possible to reconnect his brain with a new, “averaged” out neural network, based on 4000 humans. However, this simply meant that he felt joy at everything - similar to what he experienced due to the tumour, he felt happiness at every turn.
But it’s not his happiness. It’s the 4000-odd’s brains’ happiness, and he was losing his individuality in it. He was ready to switch everything off, when a new addition to the neural networks meant that he could mentally reduce the happiness for things. Don’t think I should enjoy this Beethoven music? Turn it down mentally.
This introduced his individuality back. He was able to make the conscious decision to enjoy something or not.
In came Julia. He felt he could love her. However on learning the truth she decided she couldn’t be with someone like this, and therefore left him.
This last bit was the main point of the short story I thought. He continued feeling miserable. He chose to be miserable. Because that was part of him, the sadness made him, him. So instead of changing the switch to make him dislike Julia and lessen the pain of the break up, he saw the reason to be sad, and that is okay.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
What if you could actually decide what you find enjoyable?
Reasons to Be Cheerful almost reads like an actual, personal account in the beginning. Thoroughly grounded, in a way, and quite thought provoking. Egan really knows how to deliver compelling ideas in a short story format (and also in a novel-length medium).
You can knock it out in a sitting, but it's interesting enough to make you linger.