In what's become something of a Terraform Christmas tradition, speculative fictionalist (and author of the forthcoming novel Infinite Detail) Tim Maughan is here to turn our blissfully consumptive holidays into another dystopian nightmare. Tis the season. Enjoy. -the ed
The little fucker’s dead Disney eyes look like they’re about to bulge out of its head, its pathetic little pipe cleaner thin limbs thrashing against the air, blood soaking the snow with crimson. It’s harder than you’d think, decapitating the little shit. Looking at its tiny elven frame you’d think it’d be easy, just snap its skull away from the top of its spine like popping the lid off a pill jar. Childproof, Push Down and Turn.
Eventually it comes free, the thrashing stops, and I feel myself letting out some kind of primeval scream. Victory. One man against a fucking season. But the little turd is still screaming; muffled, garbled laughs and demonic festive songs coming from its cracked, seeping skull. I feel myself pulling back in rage and horror, dragging myself up on to my feet, gazing down at its shattered, twisted corpse, its little red and green outfit soaked through with blood and snow.
I glance back at the open door, Erin staring at me with unbelieving eyes, Luke hugging her leg, sobbing, both of them silhouetted against the technicolor festive glow of blinking LEDs.
“Go inside,” I say to her, breathing hard. “And bring me a hammer.”
“You sure about this?”
“Like…no? But it’s gotta be worth a try, right? I mean it cost next to nothing, it was basically free. So if it doesn’t work it’s fine. I mean, what could possibly go wrong?”
Things had been pretty tense in the house since school ended for the holidays. I mean, if we were both honest, things had been pretty tense in the house for the last six years. Luke’s a lovely kid, charming and funny, caring and tender when the moment takes him. The rest of the time he’s kind of a little shit. Yeah, that’s a lousy thing for a father to say about his son, but then you’ve probably not been called to daycare four times in one week because your child is being disruptive. You’ve probably not had to walk your child the entire length of a Walmart while everyone stops and stares because your son is having such a bad tantrum that security asked you to leave. You’ve probably not had to write your wife’s ex-boss a check for two thousand bucks because your child swept through their living room like the Tasmanian Devil in those old cartoons, taking out a designer glass coffee table and a 4K TV on the way.
So yeah, his behavior wasn’t a new thing. But this time of year was extra tough, because he was home for a solid two weeks with Erin—now freelancing—taking the full brunt while I was at the office. Which, of course made me feel shitty, guilty, and useless. So I did what any dad wanting to feel less shitty, guilty, and useless would do. I looked on Amazon.
We’d put the elf—unboxed and fully charged—on a shelf in Luke’s bedroom. One where, as instructed by the badly translated manual, it had a good view of the entire room, but where also he wouldn’t be able to reach it without one of us helping. Now it was just staring back at us, unmoving, with those unflinching, soulless cartoon eyes.
“According to the app you gotta squeeze its little right hand there, to activate it,” said Erin, peering up from her phone. She’d finally made it past the infinite scroll of the Terms and Conditions page, by just stabbing accept without reading any of it.
“Okaaay…” I squeezed its hand and felt something plasticky click inside its tiny foam mitten.
The thing seemed to shudder in to life, some fragile mechanical skeleton of servos and sensors awakening under its foamy flesh and sweatshop stitched cloth outfit. The little bell on its hat tinkled. We both took a step back.
“Ho ho ho! Hi! I’m the Elf on the Shelf!” It had a a convincingly synthesized human voice that had been shifted up just enough semitones to give it that uncanny valley sheen. “And I’ve come to make sure Santa knows who’s been naughty and nice!”
“Well it seems to be worki-“
“Oh! Hello Steve! Hello Erin!” the elf interrupted. “Merry Christmas! Nice to make your acquaintance!
Erin looked as awkward as I felt. “Um, hi?”
“How the fuck does it know our names?”
“Well I had to link the app to my Amazon, Google and Facebook accounts, so I guess it’s seen all our photos?” she said.
“You two look like very good boys and girls! But a bit too old to need me to watch you, ha ha ha! Ho ho ho!”
“Cute,” Erin said, completely deadpan.
“Is there a little person in your house that you need me to keep an eye on?” And then—I shit you not—the fucking thing winked at us.
Erin lent towards me and whispered. “It’s creeping me out.”
It was creeping me out too, but suddenly I felt kinda defensive, in that shitty, guilty, and useless Dad way.
“Let’s just give it a chance,” I whispered back. I mean it’s not for us, for a start. Let’s get Luke in here.”
Getting Luke in here was, of course, one of those things that were easier said than done. He was ensconced on the floor in the lounge downstairs, wallowing in a pit of Lego and candy wrappers, strung out on sugar and hypnotized by large screen cartoons. It took six attempts for me to even get his attention. We had to pause half way up the stairs for a category four tantrum. Eventually I got him in the room, got him calmed down, his eyes dried.
“Hey look Luke, I want you to meet someone. This is, um, the Elf on the Shelf.”
“Hi Luke! I’m one of Santa’s Magical Scout Elves! Scout Elves help Santa manage his naughty and nice lists by taking note of a family’s Christmas adventures, and reporting back to Santa at the North Pole nightly. So I’m going to be staying with you for a couple of weeks, right up until Christmas!”
“Really? You’re going to be staying with me?”
“Yes, that’s right Luke, I’m going to be here right up until Christmas day! When you’ll get your presents! That’s if you’ve been nice and not naughty, of course!”
“Okay.” It was odd to see him interacting with it. We’d never let him have access to Alexa or Siri, so this felt like a new thing.
“It’s my job to tell Santa whether you’re behaving or not, whether you’ve been a good little boy. And if you’ve not then-“
“Then I won’t get any presents?”
Luke looked so distressed at this point that I nearly intervened. For a brief moment I nearly jumped in, grabbed my son and hugged him, told him not to worry. You’re fine. Christmas is fine. Forget this bullshit. Mommy and Daddy are just joking around. You’ll get your presents.
But I didn’t.
“Maybe not! But I’m sure that won’t happen! You look like a really good boy to me. Plus you know what? Being good can be fun, and I’m going to show you how!”
The elf seemed to pause for a second, as if it was calibrating, scanning and analyzing.
“Wow, you’ve got a lovely room here Luke! So Cool! But it’s a bit messy!”
The place looked, as usual, like a fucking bombsite.
“I guess,” said Luke
“Oh, and I see you like Potatoman!”
I glanced round. There was a Potatoman poster on the wall, a couple of toys on the shelf. Potatoman and Chipkid.
Luke’s demeanor changed instantly. He started bouncing on the spot, went straight to full volume as usual. “POTATOMAN POTATOMAN!”
“Yeaaaahhhh!” the elf jopined in. “POTATOMAN! POTATOMAN!”
“Did you know there’s a new Potatoman movie coming out next year Luke?” asked the elf.
Suddenly the TV on his wall flicked into life
“What?” I said.
“I think it’s connected to the Alexa now?” Erin said.
“Oh right,” I said.
“POTATOMAN POTATOMAN!” Luke said, engrossed by the TV.
Suddenly it stopped. It had been a clip from the trailer for the new Potatoman movie, but it was over now. It could only have been 10 seconds long. Now it was just a black screen.
“More! More! Show More!” pleaded Luke to the elf. “POTATOMAN!”
“I can show you more Luke, I’d love to watch the whole trailer with you! But, hey – I’ve got an idea: why don’t you tidy your room up first? And then we can watch more Potatoman together!”
“POTATOMAN POTATOMAN!” chanted Luke and immediately got to work, picking up toys and clothes like his life depended on it.
Erin turned to me, a wry smile slowly spreading across her face.
“What’s he doing now?”
“He’s putting all his laundry in the basket. Whilst singing about Potatoman. With the elf.”
“Huh. Wow. I don’t think he’s ever picked up his own laundry before.”
“Nah. Never. And this morning he brushed his teeth without me asking. And by that I don’t mean without me asking him 26 times. I mean without me asking him once.”
“Yep. It’s like a complete transformation. The elf is working. The elf works, Steve.”
I moved round the table to look over her shoulder at the iPad. It felt kinda weird to be watching my kid through the camera-eyes of a toy elf when he was just in his room upstairs, but I was trying to convince myself it was just like using a baby monitor. Plus, like Erin said, it seemed to be working. Strike one up for Dad and his Amazon sourced solutions.
“What’s that?” I asked, pointing at a number next to a smiling Santa emoji-icon thing.
“That’s his nice points. He gets them for doing chores the Elf suggests. And that next to it is his Elfcoins. He gets them too. Can trade them in for songs and videos and shit.”
“Huh, so what’s that?” I pointed at another number, this one next to a smiling emoji. “I thought that was his nice score?”
“No, that’s his emotional index.”
She sighed. “So, apparently the elf can monitor his emotional state. How happy he is, or if he’s stressed or whatever. By analyzing his facial expressions and body movements. According to this he’s super happy right now.”
“Huh. Okay. I guess that’s good?”
“That your child is happy? Yes Steve, that’s good.”
“No, I mean of course, what I meant was, I mean…” I took a breath. “Is that creepy? That it’s analyzing him like that?
“I dunno? A little? But I mean as long as we’re just seeing it, and it’s not being shared with everyone else, I guess that’s fine right?
My mind flashed back to the infinite scroll of the Terms and Conditions page. “Yeah, sure. I guess.”
“You did what?”
I instantly knew mentioning the elf to Dave was a bad idea. He was a good friend, maybe my best, certainly my oldest, but he was also one of those guys. You know the type. One of those guys that get all smug because they don’t have a smartphone or a Facebook account. That don’t use Gmail. That lecture you non-stop about ‘surveillance capitalism’ and ‘big data’. One of those guys that won’t come into your house until you unplug the Echo.
He was also one of those guys that didn’t have a wife and kids, and so had the luxury of being so fucking pure and smug about this stuff because he didn’t understand how fucking hard keeping a family together is, and how at times you’ll take any little bit of convenience or help, regardless of who or what offers it to you.
“Look, I know. I know. I had my doubts too. But it seems to be working. No shit. The kid is being a little angel now.”
He shook his head at me. “What about Erin? What’s she think?”
“She’s cool with it. She’s into it. She loves it man. It’s made her life a lot easier. Not having to deal with the tantrums has given her a life back. It’s given us all our lives back.”
“You guys are fucking crazy. You know that? Fucking crazy. You know that thing’s just a surveillance device, right? It’s a real-world data miner. It’s just vacuuming up all the information it can about you and sending it back to Amazon or China or whatever. Jesus Christ. And you put it in your kid’s bedroom?”
“Well, yeah Dave. That’s kinda the whole fucking point.”
“Yeah, well. Just don’t let it into the kitchen.”
“Don’t let it in the kitchen. That’s where the biggest data point in your house is. That’s why they always try to get you to put your Alexas and shit in the kitchen. It’s where all your consumer goods are, where all the consumption happens. It’ll try and get in the kitchen. Don’t let it.”
I started laughing at him. “It’ll try and get in the kitchen? Listen to yourself man. Your tinfoil hat is slipping. It’s a toy elf. On a shelf. It’s not going to try and get anywhere.”
“Whatever. Laugh all you want. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. It’ll try and get into the kitchen.”
“Daddy! The elf says we should bring him into the kitchen!”
My hand froze in mid arc, milk and cheerios dripping off it back into bowl, sending a spray of white flecks across my shirt. My clean fucking just on today shirt.
“The elf! He says I should bring him into the kitchen to see you guys! But I can’t reach the shelf, it’s too high up.”
Thank god. “No Luke, the elf lives in your room. With you.”
“Yeah, but he says there must be lots of chores to do in the kitchen! Like tidying up the table after breakfast or putting things in the dishwasher!”
Erin looked up from her phone. “You know Luke, you can do those chores in the kitchen without the elf watching you, right?”
“But Mommy! Then I won’t get Elfcoins if he doesn’t see me doing them.”
“Hmm, yeah good point. Ok well-“
She shrugged at me.
“Whatever. I mean, have you seen the kitchen sink? It’s looking pretty dystopian right now.”
I ignored her snark and turned back to my son. “Luke, the elf lives in your room with you. He’s not meant to come into the kitchen. The kitchen is a place just for us, just for humans. No elves. For Mommy, Daddy, and Luke to be together. Family time, right? Now sit down and have some breakfast.”
I helped him pour himself some Cheerios and milk. Which is when it started.
“Daddy? Why do we always have Cheerios for breakfast? We should eat Amazon Go Frosted Bezos Flakes! They’re Made With 27 Different Ancient Grains, And Have Zero Trans Fats! Good Productive Days Start With Amazon Go Frosted Bezos Flakes!”
Look, I’m not capitalizing those words up there just for comedic effect. It is not an affected style choice. That’s how he said it to me. That’s how my fucking six year old son said those exact words to me.
Both Erin and me stared at him in puzzled silence.
“Luke, what did you just say?”
“Amazon Go Frosted Bezos Flakes! They’re Made With 27 Different Ancient-“
I laughed. Nervously at first, and then Luke and Erin joined in and we all just laughed. The kid was repeating something he’d heard on a TV advert. It was just one of those cute things that kids do.
We all quietened down.
“C’mon Luke, eat your cereal” I said.
“And then I can go back upstairs and play with the Elf some more?”
He wolfed his Cheerios down, pausing at the end to look up at me. “Daddy, can I ask you a question?”
“Sure Luke, of course. Anything.”
“What brand of coffee are you drinking?”
I was a little caught out. “I, um, don’t know. It’s some-“ I couldn’t remember, I glanced around the kitchen looking for the packet.
“You should drink Amazon Go’s Artisanal Rich Blend!” said Luke. “These Are Organic, Fairtrade, Arabica Beans, Roasted Right In The Heart Of America. It’s A Velvety Mug Of-“
“Luke. Stop. Where are you getting all this? From the TV?”
“Oh no!” He said. “From the elf!”
More puzzled silence from Erin and me. But this time, for me at least, with an added slice of creeping panic.
“The elf?” Erin asked him. “The elf is telling you about coffee?”
‘Of course! The elf tells me all about Exciting New Products and Fantastic Savings! He says that’s another reason why he should come and have breakfast with us too, so he can tell Mommy and Daddy about Exciting New Products and Fantastic Savings!”
“Jesus Christ” I muttered under my breath.
“Okay. Okay Luke.” Erin was a little rattled, I could see. “Why don’t you go back up to your room now, for a little bit. Ok?”
“And play with the elf?”
“Sure…and then maybe after I’ve cleaned up here we can sit and watch Potatoman together.”
“YAY POTATOMAN! POTATOMAN POTATOMAN!”
And with that he was gone.
“Well, that’s fucked,” I said.
“Eh, so what.” Now it was Erin’s turn to sound defensive. “So it slips in some adverts every so often. What’s the big deal? It’s like listening to Spotify. You said yourself it cost next to nothing, I guess they’ve got to make their money back somehow.”
“Our son is reciting ad copy to you verbatim because a little fucking robot elf told him to, and you think that’s no big deal?”
“No, what I think is a big deal is that he hasn’t thrown a tantrum in over ten days. Ten days Steve. You remember the tantrums? The ones he used to throw four times a day? You remember any of that? Oh no, I guess you’re never fucking at home when he was-“
“Ok, Ok. I get it. But it’s freaking me out. Come new year that thing is going in the trash.“
This went on for another fucking week. Luke constantly repeating adverts back at us, constantly trying to get us to move the Elf out of his room. We were both getting increasingly freaked out, and we tried to intervene—like limiting time he spent in his room with the elf, or trying to get him to come down and play in the lounge with us. But then he would just get upset, and old Luke would be back. The tantrums would start again, disappearing as soon as he got to hang out with the elf some more. So, we let him.
Erin seemed willing to put up with it, at least until the Holidays were over, just for some peace and quiet. But I was starting to hate the elf. It creeped me the fuck out. I couldn’t get what Dave had said to me out of my head. I even read some links he sent me. For a couple of days I submersed myself in techno panic, my head full of stories of about surveillance capitalism and social manipulation, about how every aspect of our lives was being mined for data that was then used to make algorithmic decisions we didn’t comprehend, or to manipulate us into behaving certain ways without us realizing. I put a post-it over the camera on my laptop. I turned off location services on my phone. I even deactivated my Facebook account for a few hours. Erin was clearly a bit weirded out too, but she was in denial. Whenever I tried to talk to her about it she’d laugh me off, asking if I’d been radicalized by Dave now.
And then it was Christmas day.
In the morning Luke took all his new presents and disappeared up into his room to show them to the elf. I protested, but Erin convinced me to let him go, at least until dinner was ready.
Which is when the first tantrum happened. I’d gone to fetch him from his room, and he refused to leave unless the elf was allowed to come down with him. It was bad. Category 5. Full on screaming. Erin heard it and came up. Even the elf threatening to deduct some Elfcoins couldn’t calm him down. Finally we submitted.
“Look, it’s the last day.” Erin said to me, exhausted. “Tomorrow it goes back in its box.”
“Tomorrow it goes in the trash.”
“Whatever, let’s just try and get through the rest of the day without any more tantrums.”
It was actually kinda cute at first. The elf was weirdly funny and entertaining in an appropriately cheesy Christmas way. We sat it in the middle of the table like an ornament, and it sung songs to us. Luke joined in, he knew all the words. They were updates to festive classics, but with occasional rap breakdowns that had a few too many references to Amazon Basics, Our Partners at Geico Insurance, and Potatoman Funko-Pops. The elf was also a surprisingly good human beatbox. The wine was flowing. We laughed.
But that didn’t last long.
“I hate brussels sprouts!” Luke suddenly shouted at the table. “They’re gross!”
“Hey!” said Erin.
“Don’t talk about mom’s cooking like that Luke!” I said.
“But they’re gross! They taste like puke and I won’t eat them!”
“Hey Luke!” piped up the elf. “Watch those volume levels, buddy! Don’t forget to use your inside voice at the dinner table!”
Instantly he calmed down. “I’m sorry Elf, you’re right.”
“That’s ok Luke, I know you’re a good boy. I’m going to tell Santa exactly how much of a good boy you are.”
Pure unadulterated fucking rage pumped through my veins. I watched my knuckles turn slowly white as I clenched my knife.
Much of it was stubborn male pride, outrage that my son had more respect for a toy Elf than his father. But most of it was fury at myself for letting this thing in my house, letting it near my family, for inviting this avatar for some faceless corporation into my home, into my child’s bedroom, for letting it watch us and listen to us and-
“I’m still not eating them.” Luke said quietly.
“The brussels sprouts. I’m not eating them. They’re still gross.”
“Luke, eat them. Mom spent a lot of time preparing dinner for us and-“
“Hey Luke!” said the elf. “I’ve got an idea! Why don’t you try eating a sprout or two? And for every one you eat, I’ll give you an Elfcoin! Elfcoins can be spent on ElfStation to buy access to exclu-“
I’m not sure exactly what happened next. I think I screamed GET OUT OF MY HOUSE AND AWAY FROM MY FUCKING FAMILY as I lurched at it, but that was drowned out by glitched, digital white noise screams as I plunged a turkey fat stained knife through the elf’s chest, picked it up, and hurled it towards the front door.
The blood on the snow is mine, I realize. I’ve cut my hand somehow. I can feel it throbbing now, even in the numbing cold.
Erin comes back, hands me the hammer in stunned silence.
Falling on the elf from this height it only takes one blow to break its skull, but I let it have a second. For luck. For Christmas. For me.
Shattered plastic skull spilling camera parts and wires, the fragments of a tiny speaker. The distorted digital howling stops.
A blissful few seconds of silence. The way that snow somehow makes everything quieter, like it soaks up soundwaves.
And then, Erin behind me, her voice tired and annoyed.
“Wow. Well done Steve. I thought we were going to get through the day without any more tantrums”
I am silent.
I turn around to face her, shivering in my t-shirt. Luke has gone, back into the house. She doesn’t meet my gaze, her eyes scanning the street. She’s checking the neighbors aren’t watching, I can tell.
“No. Not done. Not yet.” I feel the weight of the hammer in my hand as it dangles at my side.
“Bring me the Echo. And our phones. And the iPad. Fuck it, bring me the laptop.”