Want Less, by Clara Chow

 

  1. A scientist discovers a vaccine that reduces the desire that a human being feels for anything. He tests it on himself. The vaccine works. He feels less stressed, less concerned with keeping up with the Joneses (or Tans, Lims and Lees). The bachelor downgrades from a terraced house to a compact studio apartment, cleverly designed with sliding panels, hidden storage and murphy beds. He trades in his Volvo sedan for a zippy Honda hatchback. He stops buying unnecessary tchotchkes and cancels his magazine subscriptions. A few months shy of his 35th birthday, he decides to give up on looking for a girlfriend. Life alone suddenly becomes immensely enjoyable. He stops re-stocking the wine cellar, but starts spending Friday nights re-reading old books, such as The Little Prince, and destroying their spines. At work, he stops applying for funding for his research and does not bother to publish his findings about the ‘anti-desire’ vaccine he invented. Eventually, he is asked to leave his job at the university lab to make way for a younger, more prolific scholar. To everyone’s surprise, including his, he accepts this with good humour. Thanks to the savings from his downgrading measures, he finds that he is able to get by on passive income from a few investments made long ago. He lives quietly, saying ‘good morning’ without fail to his neighbours when they happen to be looking over from their balconies, when he is on his balcony doing his dawn exercises. One day, he slips and falls on the wet floor of his three metre-by-three metre bathroom. In the moments before he loses consciousness, knowing that his peaceful existence has come to an end, he thinks to himself: And I leave wanting nothing in my life.

If you like this ending, you can stop reading now. If you do not, continue to option 2 below.

  1. A scientist discovers a vaccine that stops a person from wanting more of everything. He tests it on himself. At first, the vaccine works. He feels less stressed, less concerned with keeping up with the Joneses (or Tans, Lims and Lees). He stops hankering after accolades and promotions. Instead, he throws himself passionately into his work, simply because he is good at and enjoys it. He refines and then shares the discovery of the ‘want-less’ vaccine with the world. Shortly after, he is conferred the Nobel Prize. His fame grows. One night, shady agents turn up at his door step and kidnap him. They take him to an unnamed country, plagued by corruption and poverty, and lock him in a bunker. There, they force him to manufacture the vaccine for them, which is then administered to the poor inhabitants of this country. While people puzzle over his disappearance – the scientific community is by turns dismayed and gleeful that the illustrious career of a colleague so brilliant, humble and principled has been cut short in such a bizarre manner – no one connects it to the strangely docile population of a certain dictator state. And so it goes, that the sight of obscenely wealthy top officials living it up in gilt mansions and neo-rococo banquets never incite the raggedy figures on the streets to violence.

If you like this ending, please read option 1 again and explain in 50 words or less why it is less satisfying. If you do not, continue to option 3.

  1. A scientist discovers a vaccine that suppresses any impulse to acquire more than one needs in life. He realises that he has to add an adjuvant to ensure that the vaccine does not suppress completely the impulse to better one’s lot in life or dream one’s way out of horrible circumstances. However, he quickly gets mired in the search for this adjuvant, never finding the material that gives the exact results he wants. He starts sleeping badly, often having nightmares about pathogens chasing him through sterile streets. People thronging the pavements turn their impassive faces to the wall when they see him coming. He wakes, twisted in the bedsheets. He also develops a severe case of indecision, having realised that human anxiety over acquiring things is inexorably tied to relative notions of being better or worse off than one’s neighbours. The scientists soon becomes incapable of simple acts such as choosing a watermelon in a supermarket.

If you like this ending, show this story to a friend and ask him or her to choose a favourite section. Compare your choice to theirs, then argue that you have superior literary tastes. If you do not like this ending, go on to option 5.

  1. A scientist discovers a vaccine that cures people of their need to amass more things than they need, and of their tendency to take up more space in the world – physically and psychologically. He does not test it on himself – yet. Instead, he sensibly sets about convincing the government that it was a way to revolutionise his country and its people, long criticised for lacking in civic-mindedness and social graces. The government approves an initial, controlled experiment, involving 50 paid volunteers who are made fully aware of the risks and expected outcomes. The project is dubbed “Social Graces 50”, shortened to SG50. It is successful. Participants report feeling more rational and at peace. The shopaholics among them share at the weekly focus-cum-support groups that they no longer felt any urges to surf blog shops for cheap clothes or buy junk on e-retail giants. Forty-seven out of the 50 volunteers sell their homes to move into smaller apartments or rented rooms. The three who do not do this are those still living with their parents. Family members and friends of the study subjects respond in anonymous surveys that the subjects are more polite, pleasant and considerate of others. They have also become markedly tidier and organised in terms of their personal belongings and areas. The volunteers are also required to wear tiny cameras wherever they go, for the duration of the SG50 project. Later, going over the footage, the scientist and his team of researchers discover that the pioneer vaccinated batch are exceedingly polite and mindful wherever they go, often stopping and stepping off pavements to allow others to pass, or squashing themselves against the wall in crowded thoroughfares or underground pedestrian tunnels. SG50 is expanded into SG2000, and again into SGX – ‘X’ standing for the entire population, current and forecasted. When SGX is concluded, and the nation is being heralded internationally as a marvel in social engineering, the scientist sips his last flute of celebratory champagne, before palpating for a vein on his arm. Then, sliding a needle into the tiny green vein he raised, he pushes the plunger and hopes for the best.

If you like this ending. If you like this ending. If you like. If you like. If you. If.

  1. A scientist discovers a vaccine that prevents people from wanting more than what they need to exist comfortably. Unwisely, he decides to test it on himself. The batch of vaccine he injects into himself is a live attenuated virus that has somehow gone wrong. The effect is the exact opposite of what he intended: he begins hankering for more and more. He starts feeling extremely envious of his peers’ breakthroughs in their own research. So he stays back after hours, ostensibly to work harder on his own experiments, but, in actual fact, to sabotage his colleagues’ trials. He takes out a huge mortgage in order to buy a penthouse he cannot afford. He convinces his wife, now pushing 45, to have a fourth child. He also takes a mistress, a karaoke hostess he met at a $10,000-a-bottle lounge, where he had taken a venture capitalist to coax more funding out of him. He buys an Aston Martin Vanquish. People assume he is having a mid-life crisis.

If you like this ending, go on to option 6. If you do not like this ending, go on to option 6.

  1. A scientist discovers a vaccine that prevents people from wanting more than what they need to exist comfortably. Everything proceeds according to option 5, above. Then, after a year, the effects from the botched vaccine begins wearing off. Our man of science finds himself, inexplicably, scaling back on his purchases, dropping his mistress and stopping his weird sour-grapes, sabotaging behaviour. He puts two and two together, and realises what happened with his vaccination attempt. After a few months of relative sanity, however, he begins missing the thrill of chasing more and more, well, more. In the dead of the night, he creeps back into his lab, unlocks the glass cabinet containing the contaminated batch of live vaccines. Under the humming fluorescent lights, he draws out a vial and readies a syringe.

If you like this beginning, read Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. If you do not, go to option 7.

  1. A scientist discovers a vaccine that makes you want less; he does not tell a single soul.

If you like this sentence, stop reading. If you do not, go to option 8.

  1. A scientist

Go to option 9.

9.


Clara Chow is a writer/journalist from Singapore, whose short stories have appeared in Blunderbuss Magazine, QLRS (Quarterly Literary Review Singapore) and CHA: An Asian Literary Review – with work forthcoming in Cheat River Review and Asia Literary Review. She is currently working on a collection of short stories based on interviews with Singaporean architects.

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