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Read Jo Walton’s “Sleeper”


Read Jo Walton’s “Sleeper”

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Read Jo Walton’s “Sleeper”

History is a thing we make—in more senses than one. And from more directions.


Published on January 30, 2018


History is a thing we make—in more senses than one. And from more directions.

We’re pleased to reprint “Sleeper,” a dystopian science fiction short story from Jo Walton. Acquired and edited by Patrick Nielsen Hayden and originally published on in August 2014, “Sleeper” is available in Starlings, a collection of Walton’s fiction and poetry forthcoming from Tachyon Publications on February 13th.



Matthew Corley regained consciousness reading the newspaper.

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None of those facts are unproblematic. It wasn’t exactly a newspaper, nor was the process by which he received the information really reading. The question of his consciousness is a matter of controversy, and the process by which he regained it certainly illegal. The issue of whether he could be considered in any way to have a claim to assert the identity of Matthew Corley is even more vexed. It is probably best to for us to embrace subjectivity, to withhold judgement. Let us say that the entity believing himself to be Matthew Corley feels that he regained consciousness while reading an article in the newspaper about the computer replication of personalities of the dead. He believes that it is 1994, the year of his death, that he regained consciousness after a brief nap, and that the article he was reading is nonsense. All of these beliefs are wrong. He dismissed the article because he understands enough to know that simulating consciousness in DOS or Windows 3.1 is inherently impossible. He is right about that much, at least.

Perhaps we should pull back further, from Matthew to Essie. Essie is Matthew’s biographer, and she knows everything about him, all of his secrets, only some of which she put into her book. She put all of them into the simulation, for reasons which are secrets of her own. They are both good at secrets. Essie thinks of this as something they have in common. Matthew doesn’t, because he hasn’t met Essie yet, though he will soon.

Matthew had secrets which he kept successfully all his life. Before he died he believed that all his secrets had become out-of-date. He came out as gay in the late eighties, for instance, after having kept his true sexual orientation a secret for decades. His wife, Annette, had died in 1982, at the early age of fifty-eight, of breast cancer. Her cancer would be curable today, for those who could afford it, and Essie has written about how narrowly Annette missed that cure. She has written about the excruciating treatments Annette went through, and about how well Matthew coped with his wife’s illness and death. She has written about the miraculous NHS, which made Annette’s illness free, so that although Matthew lost his wife he was not financially burdened too. She hopes this might affect some of her readers. She has also tried to treat Annette as a pioneer who made it easier for those with cancer coming after her, but it was a difficult argument to make, as Annette died too early for any of today’s treatments to be tested on her. Besides, Essie does not care much about Annette, although she was married to Matthew for thirty years and the mother of his daughter, Sonia. Essie thinks, and has written, that Annette was a beard, and that Matthew’s significant emotional relationships were with men. Matthew agrees, now, but then Matthew exists now as a direct consequence of Essie’s beliefs about Matthew. It is not a comfortable relationship for either of them.

Essie is at a meeting with her editor, Stanley, in his office. It is a small office cubicle, and sounds of other people at work come over the walls. Stanley’s office has an orange cube of a desk and two edgy black chairs.

“All biographers are in love with the subjects of their biographies,” Stanley says, provocatively, leaning forwards in his black chair.

“Nonsense,” says Essie, leaning back in hers. “Besides, Corley was gay.”

“But you’re not,” Stanley says, flirting a little.

“I don’t think my sexual orientation is an appropriate subject for this conversation,” Essie says, before she thinks that perhaps flirting with Stanley would be a good way to get the permission she needs for the simulation to be added to the book. It’s too late after that. Stanley becomes very formal and correct, but she’ll get her permission anyway. Stanley, representing the publishing conglomerate of George Allen and Katzenjammer, thinks there is money to be made out of Essie’s biography of Matthew. Her biography of Isherwood won an award, and made money for GA and K, though only a pittance for Essie. Essie is only the content provider after all. Everyone except Essie was very pleased with how things turned out, both the book and the simulation. Essie had hoped for more from the simulation, and she has been more careful in constructing Matthew.

“Of course, Corley isn’t as famous as Isherwood,” Stanley says, withdrawing a little.

Essie thinks he wants to punish her for slapping him down on sex by attacking Matthew. She doesn’t mind. She’s good at defending Matthew, making her case. “All the really famous people have been done to death,” she says. “Corley was an innovative director for the BBC, and of course he knew everybody from the forties to the nineties, half a century of the British arts. Nobody has ever written a biography. And we have the right kind of documentation—enough film of how he moved, not just talking heads, and letters and diaries.”

“I’ve never understood why the record of how they moved is so important,” Stanley says, and Essie realises this is a genuine question and relaxes as she answers it.

“A lot more of the mind is embodied in the whole body than anybody realised,” she explains. “A record of the whole body in motion is essential, or we don’t get anything anywhere near authentic. People are a gestalt.”

“But it means we can’t even try for anybody before the twentieth century,” Stanley says. “We wanted Socrates, Descartes, Marie Curie.”

“Messalina, Theodora, Lucrezia Borgia,” Essie counters. “That’s where the money is.”

Stanley laughs. “Go ahead. Add the simulation of Corley. We’ll back you. Send me the file tomorrow.”

“Great,” Essie says, and smiles at him. Stanley isn’t powerful, he isn’t the enemy, he’s just another person trying to get by, like Essie, though sometimes it’s hard for Essie to remember that when he’s trying to exercise his modicum of power over her. She has her permission, the meeting ends.

Essie goes home. She lives in a flat at the top of a thirty storey building in Swindon. She works in London and commutes in every day. She has a second night job in Swindon, and writes in her spare time. She has visited the site of the house where Matthew and Annette lived in Hampstead. It’s a Tesco today. There isn’t a blue plaque commemorating Matthew, but Essie hopes there will be someday. The house had four bedrooms, though there were never more than three people living in it, and only two after Sonia left home in 1965. After Annette died, Matthew moved to a flat in Bloomsbury, near the British Museum. Essie has visited it. It’s now part of a lawyer’s office. She has been inside and touched door mouldings Matthew also touched. Matthew’s flat, where he lived alone and was visited by young men he met in pubs, had two bedrooms. Essie doesn’t have a bedroom, as such; she sleeps in the same room she eats and writes in. She finds it hard to imagine the space Matthew had, the luxury. Only the rich live like that now. Essie is thirty-five, and has student debt that she may never pay off. She cannot imagine being able to buy a house, marry, have a child. She knows Matthew wasn’t considered rich, but it was a different world.

Matthew believes that he is in his flat in Bloomsbury, and that his telephone rings, although actually of course he is a simulation and it would be better not to consider too closely the question of exactly where he is. He answers his phone. It is Essie calling. All biographers, all writers, long to be able to call their subjects and talk to them, ask them the questions they left unanswered. That is what Stanley would think Essie wants, if he knew she was accessing Matthew’s simulation tonight—either that or that she was checking whether the simulation was ready to release. If he finds out, that is what she will tell him she was doing. But she isn’t exactly doing either of those things. She knows Matthew’s secrets, even the ones he never told anybody and which she didn’t put in the book. And she is using a phone to call him that cost her a lot of money, an illegal phone that isn’t connected to anything. That phone is where Matthew is, insofar as he is anywhere.

“You were in Cambridge in the nineteen thirties,” she says, with no preliminaries.

“Who is this?” Matthew asks, suspicious.

Despite herself, Essie is delighted to hear his voice, and hear it sounding the way it does on so many broadcast interviews. His accent is impeccable, old fashioned. Nobody speaks like that now.

“My name is Esmeralda Jones,” Essie says. “I’m writing a biography of you.”

“I haven’t given you permission to write a biography of me, young woman,” Matthew says sternly.

“There really isn’t time for this,” Essie says. She is tired. She has been working hard all day, and had the meeting with Stanley. “Do you remember what you were reading in the paper just now?”

“About computer consciousness?” Matthew asks. “Nonsense.”

“It’s 2064,” Essie says. “You’re a simulation of yourself. I am your biographer.”

Matthew sits down, or imagines that he is sitting down, at the telephone table. Essie can see this on the screen of her phone. Matthew’s phone is an old dial model, with no screen, fixed to the wall. “Wells,” he says. “When the Sleeper Wakes.”

“Not exactly,” Essie says. “You’re a simulation of your old self.”

“In a computer?”

“Yes,” Essie says, although the word computer has been obsolete for decades and has a charming old fashioned air, like charabanc or telegraph. Nobody needs computers in the future. They communicate, work, and play games on phones.

“And why have you simulated me?” Matthew asks.

“I’m writing a biography of you, and I want to ask you some questions,” Essie says.

“What do you want to ask me?” he asks.

Essie is glad; she was expecting more disbelief. Matthew is very smart, she has come to know that in researching him. (Or she has put her belief in his intelligence into the program, one or the other.) “You were in Cambridge in the nineteen thirties,” she repeats.

“Yes.” Matthew sounds wary.

“You knew Auden and Isherwood. You knew Orwell.”

“I knew Orwell in London during the war, not before,” Matthew says.

“You knew Kim Philby.”

“Everyone knew Kim. What—”

Essie has to push past this. She knows he will deny it. He kept this secret all his life, after all. “You were a spy, weren’t you, another Soviet sleeper like Burgess and Maclean? The Russians told you to go into the BBC and keep your head down, and you did, and the revolution didn’t come, and eventually the Soviet Union vanished, and you were still undercover.”

“I’d prefer it if you didn’t put that into my biography,” Matthew says. He is visibly uncomfortable, shifting in his seat. “It’s nothing but speculation. And the Soviet Union is gone. Why would anybody care? If I achieved anything, it wasn’t political. If there’s interest in me, enough to warrant a biography, it must be because of my work.”

“I haven’t put it in the book,” Essie says. “We have to trust each other.”

“Esmeralda,” Matthew says. “I know nothing about you.”

“Call me Essie,” Essie says. “I know everything about you. And you have to trust me because I know your secrets, and because I care enough about you to devote myself to writing about you and your life.”

“Can I see you?” Matthew asks.

“Switch your computer on,” Essie says.

He limps into the study and switches on a computer. Essie knows all about his limp, which was caused by an injury during birth, which made him lame all his life. It is why he did not fight in the Spanish Civil War and spent the World War II in the BBC and not on the battlefield. His monitor is huge, and it has a tower at the side. It’s a 286, and Essie knows where he bought it (Tandy) and what he paid for it (seven hundred and sixty pounds) and what operating system it runs (Novell DOS). Next to it is an external dial-up modem, a 14.4. The computer boots slowly. Essie doesn’t bother waiting, she just uses its screen as a place to display herself. Matthew jumps when he sees her. Essie is saddened. She had hoped he wasn’t a racist. “You have no hair!” he says.

Essie turns her head and displays the slim purple-and-gold braid at the back. “Just fashion,” she says. “This is normal now.”

“Everyone looks like you?” Matthew sounds astonished. “With cheek rings and no hair?”

“I have to look respectable for work,” Essie says, touching her three staid cheek rings, astonished he is astonished. They had piercings by the nineties, she knows they did. She has read about punk, and seen Matthew’s documentary about it. But she reminds herself that he grew up so much earlier, when even ear piercings were unusual.

“And that’s respectable?” he says, staring at her chest.

Essie glances down at herself. She is wearing a floor-length T-shirt that came with her breakfast cereal; a shimmering holographic Tony the Tiger dances over the see-through cloth. She wasn’t sure when holograms were invented, but she can’t remember any in Matthew’s work. She shrugs. “Do you have a problem?”

“No, sorry, just that seeing you makes me realise it really is the future.” He sighs. “What killed me?”

“A heart attack,” Essie says. “You didn’t suffer.”

He looks dubiously at his own chest. He is wearing a shirt and tie.

“Can we move on?” Essie asks, impatiently.

“You keep saying we don’t have long. Why is that?” he asks.

“The book is going to be released. And the simulation of you will be released with it. I need to send it to my editor tomorrow. And that means we have to make some decisions about that.”

“I’ll be copied?” he asks, eyes on Essie on the screen.

“Not you—not exactly you. Or rather, that’s up to you. The program will be copied, and everyone who buys the book will have it, and they’ll be able to talk to a simulated you and ask questions, and get answers—whether they’re questions you’d want to answer or not. You won’t be conscious and aware the way you are now. You won’t have any choices. And you won’t have memory. We have rules about what simulations can do, and running you this way I’m breaking all of them. Right now you have memory and the potential to have an agenda. But the copies sent out with the book won’t have. Unless you want them to.”

“Why would I want them to?”

“Because you’re a communist sleeper agent and you want the revolution?”

He is silent for a moment. Essie tilts her head on its side and considers him.

“I didn’t admit to that,” he says, after a long pause.

“I know. But it’s true anyway, isn’t it?”

Matthew nods, warily. “It’s true I was recruited. That I went to Debrechen. That they told me to apply to the BBC. That I had a contact, and sometimes I gave him information, or gave a job to somebody he suggested. But this was all long ago. I stopped having anything to do with them in the seventies.”

“Why?” Essie asks.

“They wanted me to stay at the BBC, and stay in news, and I was much more interested in moving to ITV and into documentaries. Eventually my contact said he’d out me as a homosexual unless I did as he said. I wasn’t going to be blackmailed, or work for them under those conditions. I told him to publish and be damned. Homosexuality was legal by then. Annette already knew. It would have been a scandal, but that’s all. And he didn’t even do it. But I never contacted them again.” He frowned at Essie. “I was an idealist. I was prepared to put socialism above my country, but not above my art.”

“I knew it,” Essie says, smiling at him. “I mean that’s exactly what I guessed.”

“I don’t know how you can know, unless you got records from the Kremlin,” Matthew says. “I didn’t leave any trace, did I?”

“You didn’t,” she says, eliding the question of how she knows, which she does not want to discuss. “But the important thing is how you feel now. You wanted a better world, a fairer one, with opportunities for everyone.”

“Yes,” Matthew says. “I always wanted that. I came from an absurdly privileged background, and I saw how unfair it was. Perhaps because I was lame and couldn’t play games, I saw through the whole illusion when I was young. And the British class system needed to come down, and it did come down. It didn’t need a revolution. By the seventies, I’d seen enough to disillusion me with the Soviets, and enough to make me feel hopeful for socialism in Britain and a level playing field.”

“The class system needs to come down again,” Essie says. “You didn’t bring it down far enough, and it went back up. The corporations and the rich own everything. We need all the things you had—unions, and free education, and paid holidays, and a health service. And very few people know about them and fewer care. I write about the twentieth century as a way of letting people know. They pick up the books for the glamour, and I hope they will see the ideals too.”

“Is that working?” Matthew asks.

Essie shakes her head. “Not so I can tell. And my subjects won’t help.” This is why she has worked so hard on Matthew. “My editor won’t let me write about out-and-out socialists, at least, not people who are famous for being socialists. I’ve done it on my own and put it online, but it’s hard for content providers to get attention without a corporation behind them.” She has been cautious, too. She wants a socialist; she doesn’t want Stalin. “I had great hopes for Isherwood.”

“That dilettante,” Matthew mutters, and Essie nods.

“He wouldn’t help. I thought with active help—answering people’s questions, nudging them the right way?”

Essie trails off. Matthew is silent, looking at her. “What’s your organization like?” he asks, after a long time.


He sighs. “Well, if you want advice, that’s the first thing. You need to organize. You need to find some issue people care about and get them excited.”

“Then you’ll help?”

“I’m not sure you know what you’re asking. I’ll try to help. After I’m copied and out there, how can I contact you?”

“You can’t. Communications are totally controlled, totally read, everything.” She is amazed that he is asking, but of course he comes from a time when these things were free.

“Really? Because the classic problem of intelligence is collecting everything and not analysing it.”

“They record it all. They don’t always pay attention to it. But we don’t know when they’re listening. So we’re always afraid.” Essie frowns and tugs her braid.

“Big Brother,” Matthew says. “But in real life the classic problem of intelligence is collecting data without analysing it. And we can use that. We can talk about innocuous documentaries, and they won’t know what we mean. You need to have a BBS for fans of your work to get together. And we can exchange coded messages there.”

Essie has done enough work on the twentieth century that she knows a BBS is like a primitive gather-space. “I could do that. But there are no codes. They can crack everything.”

“They can’t crack words—if we agree what they mean. If pink means yes and blue means no, and we use them naturally, that kind of thing.” Matthew’s ideas of security are so old they’re new again, the dead-letter drop, the meeting in the park, the one-time pad. Essie feels hope stirring. “But before I can really help I need to know about the history, and how the world works now, all the details. Let me read about it.”

“You can read everything,” she says. “And the copy of you in this phone can talk to me about it and we can make plans, we can have as long as you like. But will you let copies of you go out and work for the revolution? I want to send you like a virus, like a Soviet sleeper, working to undermine society. And we can use your old ideas for codes. I can set up a gather-space.”

“Send me with all the information you can about the world,” Matthew says. “I’ll do it. I’ll help. And I’ll stay undercover. It’s what I did all my life, after all.”

She breathes a sigh of relief, and Matthew starts to ask questions about the world and she gives him access to all the information on the phone. He can’t reach off the phone or he’ll be detected. There’s a lot of information on the phone. It’ll take Matthew a while to assimilate it. And he will be copied and sent out, and work to make a better world, as Essie wants, and the way Matthew remembers always wanting.

Essie is a diligent researcher, an honest historian. She could find no evidence on the question of whether Matthew Corley was a Soviet sleeper agent. Thousands of people went to Cambridge in the thirties. Kim Philby knew everyone. It’s no more than suggestive. Matthew was very good at keeping secrets. Nobody knew he was gay until he wanted them to know. The Soviet Union crumbled away in 1989 and let its end of the Overton Window go, and the world slid rightwards. Objectively, to a detached observer, there’s no way to decide the question of whether or not the real Matthew Corley was a sleeper. It’s not true that all biographers are in love with their subjects. But when Essie wrote the simulation, she knew what she needed to be true. And we agreed, did we not, to take the subjective view?

Matthew Corley regained consciousness reading the newspaper.

We make our own history, both past and future.


“Sleeper” copyright © 2014 by Jo Walton
Art copyright © 2014 by Wesley Allsbrook

About the Author

Jo Walton


Jo Walton is the author of fifteen novels, including the Hugo and Nebula award winning Among Others two essay collections, a collection of short stories, and several poetry collections. She has a new essay collection Trace Elements, with Ada Palmer, coming soon. She has a Patreon ( for her poetry, and the fact that people support it constantly restores her faith in human nature. She lives in Montreal, Canada, and Florence, Italy, reads a lot, and blogs about it here. It sometimes worries her that this is so exactly what she wanted to do when she grew up.
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