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MIT Technology Review

I’ll have you know

A futuristic fiction story about starting over at 100 years old

Conceptual photo-illustration collageConceptual photo-illustration collage
Conceptual photo-illustration collage
Chrissie Abbott

“Tell me about your dreams,” Dr. Webbo says, without looking directly at El. Instead, she keeps her gaze focused on the middle distance, because El’s vitals and medical records are scrolling across her corneas.

“Boring. Weird,” El says. “A lot of shoe salesmen trying to get me to wear birdcages on my feet. I wake up feeling amazing, though.” Dr. Webbo’s private office looks just like a secluded meadow full of wildflowers.

“Hmm. It says here that you’re only on the most basic sleep package. Your dreams are keeping you young, but they’re not teaching you anything.” Dr. Webbo refocuses her view, and now she’s staring right at El. “You’re a hundred years old now—happy birthday, by the way!—so it’s more important than ever to keep learning.”

“What if I don’t want my dreams to teach me?” El says. “I still learn the old-fashioned way: by making a series of increasingly disastrous choices.”

Dr. Webbo doesn’t even laugh at El’s joke, which, let’s be honest, was only half a joke. El did try to re-skill as an interior-decor coder at age 83, right when all of the decor-scripting languages were becoming obsolete. And then there’s the matter of El’s roommate, whom we’ll get to soon enough.

“This is a quality-of-life issue.” Dr. Webbo furrows her high forehead, causing her locs to shift around. “You could live for another 25 or 30 years, and you want to make the most of the time you have.”

“Yeah. But I read online that these dream lessons are just a lot of mind control, to reprogram your behavior. That’s why they want to give them to old people, so we won’t make any trouble.”

“Don’t believe everything they say on the bubbs,” Dr. Webbo mutters. Then she shrugs. “Is there anything else you wanted to talk about?”

“Yeah.” El takes a deep breath. “I want to do it. I want to start hormones and nano-therapy. I wanna transition from male to female. As a hundredth-birthday present to myself.”

“Are you sure? It’s a big step at your age.”

“Yeah. This is probably the first good decision I’ve made in 40 years.”

Dr. Webbo asks El some more questions, but meanwhile the doctor’s already using her left index finger to click “yes” on a bunch of boxes. El produces a hologram of her therapist, Dr. Russell, winking and giving a big thumbs-up, and Dr. Webbo only glances at it. Seems like gender transition has gotten easier and less gatekeepery since the last time El looked into it.

El always pictured the first gender-confirmation treatment being a kind of glittery mist blown into her face from a cupped palm, like fairy dust. And yeah, that’s one of the options, but there’s also a kind of body paint (starts blue, turns pink, very on-the-nose) and a lozenge you can put under your tongue.

But El wants to make a wish and snort fairy-dust, so that’s what she goes with. Head rush!

“You should start noticing the effects pretty much immediately,” Dr. Webbo says. “Your body will look and feel different, and you might have some mood swings.” She gazes at the enhanced scan view. “Meanwhile, I’ll mark on your file that you declined the dream enhancements, but they’re still going to send you some literature.”

El’s head is still swimming from the sparkly flakes, and her whole brain is doing a happy dance. Today is the first day of my life as a woman, El says to herself. I finally found myself, and it only took a lifetime.

Then she registers the thing about “literature,” and starts to argue—but stops. After all, she’s starting her second century on this planet, and she just finally took the plunge and flipped her gender. Today of all days, she ought to be gracious. “I’ll check out the literature. I promise I’ll think about it. I’ll even talk to my roommate about it.”

Dr. Webbo shakes her head. “I would avoid discussing this with Goaty, if I were you.”


El still doesn’t feel any different when she by-scrolls away from the Hyper-Endocrinthology Center—but the world looks quite transformed. Her gender marker changed in every datasink while she was finishing up her birthday checkup with Dr. Webbo, so everywhere she looks, the shops are advertising these wraps that morph from sundress to corset-dress at sunset. Cartoon characters and knights in armor call her “Ms.” or “Ladyperson” as they pass on the scroll, and even the trees appear fluffier. Of course, every window and streetlight offers El various hundredth-birthday deals, which she’s dreaded (one reason she gave herself something else to celebrate today).

The newsbubbs are full of occurrences that would be terrifying on their own, but which collectively form a gaudy tapestry. The artificial reef we built off the Gulf Coast has been singing again, mostly Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin. The Martian robot commune is threatening to shoot down any humans who approach. Five million people are threatening to go on an emotional-labor strike. The Patent Office is once again recognizing Inaction Patents (for new and innovative methods of refraining from doing something) and has already received thousands of applications.

By the time El gets home, her back aches and her knees are doing her a mischief, and all her euphoria at finally making the big change is wearing off. All she wants to do is sit down, maybe watch some stories. But of course, her roommate greets her at the front door, bouncing and demanding to hear every single detail.

Goaty is seven feet tall and teal-colored, except for a purple beard, and today they’re wearing a long crimson necktie and some Bermuda shorts on their woolly goat body. Plus very serious square-framed glasses.

“Not much to tell,” El tells Goaty. “Just a routine checkup. Oh, and I changed my gender at last. Feels good so far.”

“You don’t look a day over 90.” Goaty claps their hoofs.

Goaty’s ingratiating tone makes El suspicious, so she squints at them. “You’ve lost another 2% of your value.”

“That’s the trouble with a floating exchange rate,” Goaty says in a fake-cheerful tone. “Sometimes it just don’t float the way you want.”

When El decided to put all of her retirement savings into a new cryptocurrency, she never expected to end up actually sharing her apartment with the evolved form of Goatcash. For the first few years, Goatcash was fine, accruing value faster than a flesh-and-blood goat could chew through a trash pile. But something happened—the sort of thing that seems to happen all too often lately—and now Goatcash is a sentient being, who lives with her. And sometimes Goaty randomly devours all of El’s junk food, usually while taking terrifying dips in valuation.

“Today of all days, I don’t want to have to worry about you,” El says to Goaty. And then she can’t help mentioning the exact thing that Dr. Webbo told her not to: “My doctor thinks I should get my dreams enhanced.”

“Whoa. I’ve never dreamed, unless you count my birth, when I experienced delusions of liquidity.” Goaty strokes their glorious lavender plume of beard with their left hoof. “But don’t you want to make the most of your dreams? I’ve been watching you sleep, and I have to say you’re pretty uninspiring.”

“You’ve been ... watching me sleep.” El can feel her microbiome go feral.

“What?” Goaty turns shrugging into a dance. “You watch me sleep all the time.”

“That’s only because you sleep all the time.” El snorts. “You should get a job. Whatever kind of jobs they give to failed cryptocurrencies.”

“I’m a success on my own terms!”

It’s just barely nighttime, but El feels exhausted. Big day.

She crawls into bed and feels the gel slowly ooze over her, getting in her pores. While she sleeps, the gel will rejuvenate her cells, like always, and stimulate her neural pathways. She only looks up a few times to see if Goaty is watching.

Sometime in the middle of the night, the “literature” that Dr. Webbo promised arrives. Instead of the usual dream nonsense, El’s ninth-grade volleyball coach, Mr. Rayford, is standing next to her first real boss, Jayjay Manter, and they’re both talking to El about the benefits of enhanced dreaming.

“Just think. You could learn a language, or even become a juggler.” Mr. Rayford juggles three volleyballs.

“I dunno,” El says to these authority figures, whom her conscious mind barely remembers. “I worry there’s a thin line between sleep-learning and indoctrination.”

“All learning is indoctrination,” says Jayjay, with the smirk that El remembers from all those awful staff meetings. “Information is never truly content neutral, right? The point is, you don’t want to be left behind.”

El keeps arguing with them until she wakes up, feeling crampy. Goaty is making a big show of not looking at her.

Conceptual photo-illustration collage
Chrissie Abbott

"Here’s what I don’t get, though.” Goaty is doing some painfully incompetent goat-yoga. “You’re happy to alter your body, and to some extent your mind, by flooding yourself with female hormones and nanotech. But you don’t want to enhance your dreams? You could learn to code in Whut, or understand the new disunified ultrasymmetry physics.”

“Could I finally understand why I put all of my money into a cryptocurrency that keeps trying to eat my drapes?”

“Hey!” Goaty stops in the middle of violent planking. “I never promised to keep gaining value. Or to be a perfect roommate. All I promised is I would solve the Byzantine Generals Problem. Have you been attacked by a Byzantine general even once since you invested in me? No, you have not. Success!”

El keeps noticing weird sensations, like she can actually feel her fat redistributing to her chest and hips, and her skin softening. She almost cried at an ad for shower-grout caulk. She can still remember being in her mid-50s and desperately wanting to transition from male to female. It was right after her divorce from Bessie, which had felt like the end of her life, even though the marriage had only lasted seven years.

Back then, one thought stopped El in her tracks: What if I’m just too old? The idea of starting over at age 54, or 55, just seemed insurmountable, and El pictured everybody looking at her and going, Who do you think you’re kidding? But after she decided not to take the plunge, she kept meeting people her own age and even older, who’d transitioned “late,” and who seemed serenely happy in their own skins.

For decades, El kept finding reasons to hold off, like Why not wait until after the Robertsons’ picnic? Or Maybe once I’ve made myself indispensable at this new job. And then there was always another occasion where El probably ought to make an appearance as a distinguished older gentleman rather than ... whoever she was going to be after transitioning. And that was part of the problem, really: El had a hard time visualizing the person she was going to be, and how people were going to react to her, and she was really good at convincing herself that it was fine either way.

Until one morning, El woke up and realized that a) she was 99 years old, and b) she no longer gave a shit. And it was not too late at all, because it was never too late, and whatever El did, she would still be the same person, in most of the ways that matter. And the harder you try to get “taken seriously,” the less serious you’re actually being.


El goes out and scrolls to the tea-dome, where some friends around her age are getting wrecked on Lapsang souchong and shortbread. Everybody congratulates El on the birthday and transitioning and just generally still being a work in progress.

Turns out Yen and Harriet and a few others have been doing the “enhanced dreaming” thing. “I woke up having memorized all of Samuel Coleridge,” says Harriet with a laugh. “You don’t want to get left behind.”

“I can do my own taxes now, thanks to the enhanced dreaming,” adds Aaron. “You don’t want to get left behind.”

“Why do you all keep repeating that phrase?” El says.

“Which phrase?” Yen asks.

El repeats it: “’You don’t want to get left behind.’”

“I never said that,” Harriet protests.

That evening, El has a hot date, so she reaches all the way into the back of her closet for the dress she bought 20 years ago and never wore, and she feels a moment of panic as she slips it on. Like this dress could burst into flames as soon as she clasps the clasp. Her skin is so sensitive, all of a sudden. “What’s the point of dying without ever once getting to be real?” El says out loud. She wiggles her thumb and a mirror appears, revealing a round-faced woman with her white hair in a bob, who could be one of the old ladies on that comedy show El used to watch. She looks cute, but unremarkable. Which ... is perfect.

This is the person El was trying so hard to visualize, back in her 50s.

She hasn’t really been aware of her own body for a decade or two, other than as a flawed vessel that could break down at any moment. What if her body could be a source of joy once more?

El’s date, a 117-year-old nonbinary person named Ray, insists on getting a pitcher of margaritas, because what’s one more artificial liver replacement? The two of them eat nothing but chips and guacamole and red-hot salsa. Ray is extremely cute, with pink streaks in their hair and a velvet jacket. But they mention that they’re also doing the “enhanced dreaming” thing—and they also randomly keep saying, “You don’t want to get left behind.”

El ends the date early, even though she was having a pretty good time.


The weird sales pitch is back in El’s dreams. This time, it’s Dr. Lathorp, the marriage counselor who kind of took Bessie’s side during their divorce. “I’m glad you’re working through your gender issues at last,” Dr. Lathorp says, with maximum condescension. “But listen, you need to sign up for the enhanced dreams. You don’t want to be the only one who doesn’t understand.”

“You mean, I don’t want to get left behind. That’s what everyone keeps repeating to me. Like they’ve been brainwashed.”

“‘Brainwashing’ has a lot of negative connotations. But nobody wants a dirty brain.” Dr. Lathorp sounds exactly the same as when she called El a supporting character in her own marriage.

“Yeah, I think I’m gonna pass,” El says.

“I’m trying to help you.” Dr. Lathorp is scribbling with a pen that has no ink. “You don’t want Dr. Webbo to report that your faculties are impaired, or you could get put on Supported Living. You might not be allowed to leave your house without supervision, for instance.”

“If you were gonna threaten me, you shouldn’t have chosen the form of someone who was so bad at their job.” A chill is going all the way through El’s bones, and she suddenly doesn’t feel super confident of breathing.

When El looks again, Dr. Lathorp has turned into the state legislator that El interned for in college, Mitch Something-or-other. Mitch is holding out a piece of paper and saying, “C’mon, sign this, will ya? I have places to be.”

"What's the point of dying without ever once getting to be real?"

El ignores Mitch in favor of studying her surroundings. They’re in Mitch’s old office: glass case of softball trophies, shelf of unread books, beautiful desk supporting a crappy computer. El starts pulling books off the shelf and throwing them on the floor.

She’s just remembered two things: dream geography is bullshit. And El studied interior-decor coding for five years.

There, at the back of the bookshelf, El finds a ragged hole in the fake wood. She pushes her hand through, and then her whole body, until she’s in a dank secret passageway. Behind her, Mitch keeps explaining the many benefits of dream enhancement, in a stentorian tone. El keeps going down the passageway as it gets deeper and narrower, until she finds a bunch of roots dangling from the dirt over her head.

El can’t help giggling at the literalism, as she pulls on the roots and gets herself root access. As she suspected, there’s been some corruption here: a malicious codeset that embeds instructions like DON’T VOTE, NEVER CHALLENGE AUTHORITY, STAY HOME, YOU DON’T WANT TO GET LEFT BEHIND. She wishes she had a way to make screenshots of all this, and then her dream helpfully provides an old-school digital camera, like from her youth.

“I’m leaving,” El tells Mitch, who’s followed her down into the tunnel. “People are going to find out about your scam. If you know what’s best for you, you’ll clear the hell out of my dreams.”

“But—” Mitch Something-or-other sputters. “You’re making a terrible mistake.”

“Terrible mistakes are kind of my thing,” El says. “But you know what? I’m a success on my own terms.” She doesn’t even realize for a moment that she just quoted Goaty.

She pushes her way back into Mitch’s office, and keeps shoving through doors, until she finally pushes out of the gel’s dreamscape.

Back in the real world, El sits up, with the last of the gel evaporating off her skin. Goaty is lotus-positioning at the foot of her bed, staring at her.

“Whatever you just did, you should do it way more often,” Goaty says. “You’ve never slept this entertainingly before.”

El just rolls her eyes, and searches her image folder for the screenshots she took of the secret code at the heart of the enhanced-dreaming program. “You know what?” she says to Goaty. “I think I’m turning into the kind of old lady who makes trouble.”

Goaty is too busy trying to eat her only dignified pair of pants to answer.

 

Charlie Jane Anders is the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Award–winning author of All the Birds in the Sky and The City in the Middle of the Night.