The short story “The Man Without Quintessence” by Anil Menon was published for the first time in 2020 by Future Fiction within the anthology “Avatar. Contemporary Indian Science Fiction”.
Ringo Singh Mann achieves some visibility only after his death. That’s because he was in the completely anomalous situation of being without quintessence, a unique signature in the iris of his eyes. For this reason, he lived a life of anonymity, a situation in which he was out of any form of surveillance and at the same time couldn’t use automated commercial services.
“The Man Without Quintessence” takes us to a future India in which artificial intelligence is used to identify citizens through the quintessence, that is, the unique signature, as in the structure of the iris in their eyes. The system is a futuristic version of the real identification system based in part on biometric data that generates a code called Aadhaar. In the short story, there are some special cases of people who don’t have a retinal structure that can be identified, such as Ringo Singh Mann.
The story is told in the first person by a journalist who, after the man’s death, remembers when he tracked him down and the results of his research on people who are like ghosts for the national system. The narrator mainly reports conversations with various people who offer different points of view on the subject. That’s the most intriguing element of the story because it goes beyond a Big Brother-style situation by showing various facets of the problem.
The story develops a very serious theme but also contains funny moments and all in all it offers a light-hearted vision of what is in a society where mass surveillance is part of everyday life for almost all citizens. There are probably subtleties related to the controversies that really exist in India around the Aadhaar identifier that one should know thoroughly in order to fully appreciate some details.
Even without knowing the real Indian situation to understand the projection into the future created by Anil Menon, “The Man Without Quintessence” offers an interesting series of considerations related to the problem of digital identity that can be appreciated in other countries as well. In an increasingly connected society, the people who are not part of the system are increasingly excluded from a series of services but the people within the system increasingly struggle to control their privacy, starting from browser cookies up to the biometric identifications that are spreading. For this reason, this short story offers some food for thought.