Monday, 16 October 2017

Duel Redux

[Media prompt] Elon Musk confirms that the first Tesla semi-truck prototype is ‘completed’.
Duel Redux

The engineer had made good time. He arrived at Carmine Junction before noon, stopping for gas and a sandwich. He needed a break. It had been hot enough for the air conditioning since mid-morning, but his unit only blew in air from outside. While he ate, he looked up at the sky. There was no relief in sight.

Back on the road, the engineer set the cruise control for sixty and dialled in a local country and western station. No matter which direction you looked out here, the land was empty. He turned up the music and hung his arm out the window.

He didn’t see the red Tesla until it filled his rear view mirror with its grill. The road was straight to the horizon, a black line disappearing into a white sky. He had not seen a car since leaving Carmine Junction. The Tesla tucked in behind him, matching his speed precisely. After a mile, the engineer disengaged the cruise control, dropping under fifty-five. The truck filled his mirror exactly as it had done at sixty. He eased off the accelerator, the needle wavering back to fifty.

“What’s the problem?” he said, speeding up.

At seventy, the truck pulled out and overtook. He heard the hum of its tyres on the hot tar. It merged back into the right hand lane, decelerating rapidly.

“Jesus,” he said, braking hard. “What the–”

His vehicle pulled left under brakes, and he felt the suspension judder as two wheels ran onto dirt. He stopped, sitting for a moment, the engine idling, as the Tesla pulled away rapidly. When he felt calm, he drove on again.

When he reached sixty again, the gap between his car and the truck soon began to dwindle; fast enough for the engineer to estimate the Tesla was travelling at something less than forty miles per hour. As he approached, it moved into the centre of the blacktop, straddling the white lines.

“Oh, for–”

He dropped back, watching his needle wind back to below thirty. For mile after mile it swayed from right the left across the road. Eventually, the engineer picked up his phone, realising as he started to dial the number of the back bumper to lodge a complaint that it was incomplete. He threw it back on the seat.

“Goddam AI,” he said.

Then the truck moved back into the right lane. The rear readout said, “It is now safe to pass.” The engineer downshifted and pulled out. An oncoming truck missed the front of his car by inches. The engineer gripped the wheel, cursing every coder born. Then he drifted left, checking for traffic, and downshifted and passed. He slammed his hands on the wheel, pushing his car over seventy, then eighty. The Tesla receded in his rear view mirror. He turned down the music and drove.

Leland Creek appeared on the GPS. It was less than ten miles away. He edged his speed up to eighty-five, the engine under no strain. He turned up the music. Out of nowhere the Tesla blasted past him. Within seconds it was pulling ahead, the gap between them increasing at a rate indicating a speed of well over one-hundred-and-fifty miles an hour. The engineer’s heart raced, and his hands felt clammy on the wheel.

At Leland Creek, the truck was parked near the charging banks. The engineer went inside and asked the young man behind the counter if the truck was autonomous.

“As they come,” he said.

It did not make sense to the engineer. Autonomous malfunction was one thing, but this rig knew what it was doing. The engineer sat in the cool, drinking a soda and checking messages on his phone. He watched, but the truck did not move. The hot afternoon sun reflected off its tinted windows.

Back on the road, the engineer kept a careful eye on the mirror. Outside was so hot that he wound up the window, sweated profusely, and then wound it down again. Two miles from the turnoff to the Remington Mountains, he saw the sunlight glinting of a fast approaching vehicle. He pushed the accelerator down hard.

The red Tesla nestled a metre behind him just before he hit the intersection. At the last moment, the engineer swung the wheel, sending his car into a long skid that by luck more than skill adjusted his direction by exactly ninety degrees to the left. Within seconds he was accelerating towards the hills, spitting a cloud of dust in his wake.

A semi-truck is a land yacht, taking more time to brake and more space to turn. But the Tesla was like a sled on rails. The engineer saw the black grill in his mirror again soon enough. He gritted his teeth and pushed his car hard up the long incline. Gaining an advantage when he reached the switchbacks, the engineer made good time.

Towards the top, where the entire state seemed to stretch out before him in shimmering waves, he skidded to a stop.

“You want to play rough, pretty boy,” he said through his teeth, “then let’s play rough.”

From his trunk he pulled a box the size of a suitcase, opening it and aligning it with the road over which had driven.  It hummed when he flicked a switch. He moved it an inch to the left. As the Tesla came around the last bend, the engineer pushed a button. There was no obvious indication of how the device worked, but when the Tesla was less than fifty yards from the car it stopped in its tracks. The engineer calmly walked over and opened the door.

“We’re going to have to fix you,” said the engineer, and he dialled his mobile phone.

“Hey listen, it's Elon here,” he said. 

Sunday, 15 October 2017

The Reckoning

[Media prompt] Oxford college bans ‘harmful’ Christian Union from Freshers’ Fair.
The Reckoning

Caroline woke up to the beginnings of a summer cold, and she would have stayed in bed had she not promised to register the Christian Union for a booth at Freshers’ Fair. With a groan she remembered the seminar on violence against women in video games. She had promised Sandy to attend and it was starting in an hour. Almost everyone in the Union had agreed it was a Christian issue. There was no choice. Registering the booth would have to wait.

When she arrived at the seminar room it was packed to overflowing, and shortly after negotiating a row of sharp knees, the professor began.

“Current research,” she said, “suggests a link between negative attitudes toward women and violence against women, and it also suggests that media may condition such negative attitudes. The dearth of research exploring the effect of such imagery on attitudes toward women is lamentable…”

Afterwards, both girls agreed the professor’s conclusions had been important. That video games depicting sexual objectification of women and violence against women resulted in statistically significant increased rape myths acceptance was horrifying.

“As Christians, we have a duty,” said Sandy.

Caroline nodded her head. “The Lord tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence,” she said, looking at her watch. “Speaking of the good Lord, look at the time. I'll have to dash, sorry, if I’m going to book our booth.”

A young man she had not seen before asked Caroline for her application. She withdrew a neat folder from her bag and slid it across the table. When he saw it, the young man pinched his lips into a perfect O and sucked air noisily through his teeth.

“Ah,” he said, the index fingers of both hands pointing vaguely to the ceiling. “That’s going to be a bit of a problem.”

Caroline cocked her head. “How so?”

“Yes,” said the young man. “The Junior Common Room has decided Christianity has historically been homophobic and perpetuated neo-colonialism. Which means students might feel unwelcome in college if the Christian Union has a stall.”

She started to say something, but the young man pushed the file back across the table. “There’s no point arguing,” he said. “Our minds are made up.”

“That’s absurd,” said Sandy when Caroline rang to tell her. “We’ve supported the LGBTQIA community to the hilt. And how can they say we’re neo-colonialists?”

Sandy was right. The Christian Union had thrown its weight behind the campaign for gay marriage, had changed its official view on transgender identity, and was an ardent supporter of the nascent Balliol College Black Lives Matter movement.

“After all we’ve done,” Sandy said.

Caroline rang off, her friend’s final words disconcertingly resonant. She thought about it during her classes, and called her brother later that evening.

“I’ve come to a conclusion,” she said. “It doesn’t matter how much we support these people, they’ll always hate us.”

Her brother laughed. “You’ve finally woken up, then?”

Caroline ignored the jibe. “Here’s what I want you to do,” she said.

The sound of raised voices awoke her early the next morning. She swallowed and felt for the scratch in the back of her throat. Perhaps she had only imagined she was getting a cold. She would have rather stayed under the blankets, but she threw them off and went to the window. Outside she could see a police car surrounded by a small group of students. She recognised some of them, including the young man who had rejected her application the day before. He was being ushered into the back of the car, his hands cuffed.

She made a mental note to buy her bother the video game he had mentioned, the name momentarily escaping her. It was the least she could do. Linking the Junior Common Room committee and Freshers’ Fair websites to ISIS and a paedophile network must have taken time, and exposed him to not inconsiderable risk. Yes, she thought, sliding back under the covers, he deserved a new game, the more likely to raise the ire of campus do gooders the better. 

Saturday, 14 October 2017

A is for Austria, B is for Burka

[Media prompt] First violence sparked by burka ban breaks out in Austria when woman is attacked for telling a Muslim that she was breaking the law by wearing a veil.
A is for Austria, B is for Burka

As she did every weekday morning at eight o’clock, Ava kissed her husband goodbye and rode by bicycle to the bookshop she owned with her childhood friend Sophie. She rarely drove, unless the weather was exceptionally poor, and took pride in her slim figure and toned legs, which she attributed to her to daily two-wheeled commute. Recently, she and her husband had bought a farmhouse a few kilometres out of town, and Ava was still at the stage of noticing new sights on her journey; a large nest high in a tree, a wooden slat missing from the side of a barn, the smell of grass if the wind blew a certain way.

With her eyes on a bird wheeling high above, Ava failed to notice a van parked on the side of the road near the Fritzl place. It only registered with her as as she was lying on the ground afterwards with the sound of the rear wheel of her bicycle clicking as it turned slowly to a halt. There was a puff of white cloud in the blue sky above. The stinging in her grazed hands and knees was beginning to numb. She turned her head at the sound of a door sliding open. On the other side of the road, a man was doing something at a tree.  

“Hurry,” said a voice from the van.

When Ava tried to stand, someone gripped her arm, pulling her roughly. She saw the wire across the road as the man untied it. It shone in the morning sun and she wondered why it had been invisible. A push from behind sent her sprawling onto the metal floor of the van. The door slid shut and she lay in the darkness.


The rear door opened, and the bike landed on top her, a pedal thumping on her thigh, handlebars banging against the side of her head.

“Majid?” The voice was more insistent. The driver had started the engine, and Eva felt the van jerk forward.

“Okay, okay.”

A door slammed shut on the passenger side.

And then they were driving. When the van veered left, Ava knew they were turning away from the town. She felt in the handlebar basket for her bag, overwhelmed by the desire to ring Sophie to explain why she would not be at the shop on time. She looked on the floor, felt in the corner behind her. In the bag's absence, she tried to make herself comfortable, but her cuts and grazes were too painful. Her hands trembled when she tried to move the bike.

A man with a beard pulled her from the van soon after it stopped. Two watched on. She was in a shed, the door closed and windows boarded up. A workbench cluttered with tools smelled of metal and oil.

“This new law,” said one of the men.

Eva looked at him, thinking for a moment he might have spoken to her in another language. The man holding her by the arms shook her violently. “The law about the veil,” he said.

Outside she could hear birds, but when they stopped it was silent. The smell of petrol and grease was making her dizzy.

“You told a woman in your shop yesterday the wearing of the veil is illegal now. Is that correct?”

Eva remembered. The woman had come into the shop, standing in front of the counter. Thinking she had a question, Eva had asked if she could help. But the woman remained silent and still, her black robe hanging lifelessly to the floor, her eyes hidden behind a slit of gauze. A customer stepping through the door had expressed surprise, at which point Eva, losing patience, said that dressing like this was illegal now. The woman left immediately, and she and Sophie had talked about it before going home, drawing no conclusion about why the woman had stood as though waiting to be challenged.

 “Is that correct?”

Eva nodded her head. She thought of Mrs. Fritzl, who had taught in the town for over fifty years, her first teacher at the age of six. She was a regular in the store, always on the lookout for new books, a voracious reader. And like so many, determined to accommodate refugee families. She thought of the banner the children had made welcoming the first family to settle in the town, a husband and two wives, their five children. Why had she gone along with it all?

“Get it over with,” said the tallest man. “We’ve got two others to finish off today.”

Friday, 13 October 2017

The New Awakening

[Media prompt] Packs of radioactive wild boar are making farmers in Sweden nervous.
The New Awakening

Tarus felt Thor’s head rake across his shoulder, and knew he had been gashed with a tusk. He lowered his head, seeking a weakness in the bigger boar’s defence that might open up his soft underbelly for a counter attack. But Thor rammed him, and shoulder to shoulder they leaned into each other, their hooves sliding on the muddied terrain as they sought to drive the other off balance.

It had started snowing again, and the sounder of boars ringing the encounter between the old king and his usurper stood in silence as flurries mounded on their backs. Vapour poured from their gaping nostrils, a damp haze rising above and partially enveloping them.

And then as quickly as a crow’s caw, Thor fell to the ground, a wound flapping open from his ribs to his rear thigh. Without hesitation, Tarus turned and sliced the king’s jugular, the blood spurting in a bright red arc onto the snow. He turned and looked around him, and one by one the boars knelt onto their knees, heads angled to the ground.

“Belar,” he said, “Largo.”

Two of the biggest in the sounder lifted their heads, one of them shaking a clump of snow off his back.

“Come,” said Tarus. “We have much to discuss.”

Every one of them knew what was coming; the battle to the death had settled it. Belar was in favour, but Largo held no strong opinion. He hated men as much as any of them, but strategically he would have waited. With the death of Thor, there was little chance now of erring on the side of caution. He followed his general into the forest to where the new king had summoned them.

Tarus stood amidst a copse of aspen, his thick black pelt contrasting with the white bark of the trees. Already the flow of blood from his wounds had been staunched, the very flesh itself knitting together as he waited. He knew it had not been so before the time of the great cloud. The legends spoke of an earlier age, almost impossible for him to comprehend.  And yet Persigh, the oldest bear in the forest, already old when the cloud descended, had told him that boars of old were barely one-third the size. Tarus himself had seen the tusks and hides in the houses of men to confirm it with his own eyes.

“The King is dead,” said Belar, kneeling before Tarus. “Long live the King.”

“Enough,” Tarus growled. “We have work to do.”

The first attack come on Christmas Eve, a masterstroke in retrospect. Descending on a small village, Tarus and Belar led twelve soldiers into four houses of men, killing all but some young they enslaved. There had been only one injury, to Largo who stopped a shotgun blast with this enormous chest, but he quickly recovered.

Afterwards, Tarus recalled the look of surprise on the hairless, ugly faces of men when they heard him speak their guttural tongue. With Sarbon’s help, he and Belar surveyed topographical maps on computers, planning their campaign for the remainder of the winter.

“Men have ruled for long enough,” Tarus told him. “If Thor had done what was required, I would have followed him through the gates of Hell.”

Belar knew, and said nothing. He was thinking of the next attack, the slow expansion of their territory, building up their stock of human slaves. It felt good to be at war. Men were weak, and sovereignty was the boar's destiny. 

Thursday, 12 October 2017

The desolation of intellectualism: The Door by Magda Szabó

There are few individuals I can stomach less than vacuous intellectuals. Full of words and low ideals, they are almost always left foundering when real life runs their fragile social justice existence off the rails. Writers of fiction are high on my list of worst offenders; rarely as credentialed as the academic class they seek to emulate, but nonetheless never ceasing to intellectualise typing enough words to fill a couple of hundred pages. Which explains why so many of the worst offenders are drunkards, addicts or homosexual molesters.

Magda Szabó negotiates this terrain with gentle humour and dignity. As an intellectual writer, she narrates the story of her relationship with a woman we might call domestic help, a maid, but who in reality is her superior in almost every way. In doing so, she has to confront the emptiness of her life, and for which she pays a great cost. I’ve not read another book that comes close to teasing out the complexity to which such a situation might give rise. And I can’t help but love Szabó for her honesty. It’s a rare writer who can tell such a simple story, varnishing none of her moral defects, with such charm and appeal. To call it a masterpiece is no exaggeration.

That most of her books remain untranslated into English (from Hungarian) is a literary travesty. Publishers are falling over themselves to print rubbish, but nobody can see their way to clear to pay peanuts for translations? If she was a black homosexual who'd written an Oscar winning script for Harvey Weinstein, she’d be bloody literary superstar.

Just read it. You won't be disappointed, unless you're full of the kind of sickness that infects left wing literary circles these days. 

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

The Dark Arts

[Media prompt] Las Vegas survivors furious as YouTube promotes clips calling shooting a hoax.
The Dark Arts

The next assignment came with a curt note: “Edit her into any three.” 

Carlos opened the optical disc cover that lay on his desk. He angled it in the light to check for prints, then inserted it into the CD drive. There were half a dozen pictures of girls, all with their hands up to their faces and crying. In two, they were holding smartphones against their left ear. He smiled. That was something they taught you in the Agency; let the viewer focus on points of similarity and make discoveries for himself. It worked every time.

Carlos noted other evidence of Agency tendencies. There was the use of telephoto lens, which resulted in a barely observable granularity that blurred distinguishing features enough to cause confusion. The girls wore different clothing in each shot, but it was similar enough; what they referred to as ‘wardrobe consistency’. The photographer had captured an emotional response in each shot that prohibited feature-by-feature comparisons. He was the portrait angles highlighted similarities but disguised divergence. Whoever was behind the shutter knew what he was doing.

For the rest of the morning he worked at shopping the girls into various scenes. He chose two bombings and a shooting. The Jackson Hole selection was obvious. For reasons beyond him, surveys immediately after the shooting showed more than ten per cent of viewers thought it was a red flag event. Legally, that was high enough to delete uploads, but the numbers had been dropping, the most recent he’d seen put it at around seven. He chose the Ashby bombing because he liked the mosque in the background. And Salt Lake City for its randomness.

When Lenore knocked on his cubicle wall for lunch, he was just adding the final touches to Salt Lake City.

“Ooh, nice job,” she said, watching him rotate the girls face a degree. “Perfect lighting.”

He flipped through his three edits, Lenore humming in admiration. “That one in Salt Lake could win a Pulitzer,” she said. And she meant it.

After lunch he uploaded his edited files. They’d keep track of numbers over at Big Data, but during his quiet moments during the afternoon he watched comments, waiting for the reveal. It came at 5:13 p.m., a Reddit user screen capping his inserts at Jackson Hole and Ashby. “Has anybody else noticed THIS?” By the time he was relaxing at home, all three had been discovered. “It’s obviously the same girl,” said Bingo Dawson on his alternative news channel.

“Nice job,” said the hand written note he found on his desk the next morning. The daily internal bulletin said it was the most viral spread of a conspiracy meme in the company’s history. Lenore dropped by for no reason other than to say hi. She was wearing a short skirt, and her legs were browner and firmer than he had imagined. “So, lunch?” she asked, smiling when he nodded.

It was just like his brother always said. Google’s motto was Be Evil. The ethics of manipulation sometimes gave him pause, but if it meant he got to sleep with Lenore it would be more than worth it. A new package arrived on his desk. “Edit into background at free speech event,” said the note accompanying a disc with photos of a shooter in Carson City. If he exceeded expectations on this one, perhaps Dominique from the top floor might ask him out to lunch.

Carlos pulled his chair in and went to work. 

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

The Promise

[Media prompt] Earth’s largest ever extinction ever may have been caused by massive volcanic eruptions in Siberia, according to new research. Around 95 per cent of marine life and 70 per cent of life on land was wiped out in “The Great Dying” about 252 million years ago.
The Promise

Sylvia woke first, her cough worse than the day before. Jens patted her back, but after a while she asked him to stop.

“My skin hurts,” she said, holding his hand.

There was nothing left with which to make a fire, so Jens soaked oats in cold water. They still had some dried fruit, and he added half of it. After packing they ate in silence.

“I’ll wash,” he said, setting off for the pond. More ash had settled overnight. Squatting on the bank he rubbed wet sand on the metal to sandpaper it clean. Then he submerged the tin and skimmed off a layer of grey residue, taking it back to fill their bottles.

“We need to get going,” he said.

Lazlo came to see them off. He handed Sylvia a respirator. “Remember, when you reach the other side of the crater,” he said, hitching up his pants, “follow the ridge line. It’s easy to lose your way.”

They had discussed the path at length last night but Jens let him finish and said thank you. They shook hands, and Sylvia strapped the respirator over her mouth and nose. In the silence they heard the traps opening and closing with soft pings and clicks.

They skirted the pond, heading for the rim of the crater, the lava flow on the other side glowing steadily through the ash. It took them some time to find the path down into the crater, a number of false starts leading them to leaden dead ends. But then Sylvia found it, and they wound their way down switchbacks to the floor, the walking easier.

Before mid-afternoon they had climbed their way out. Down in the gully they saw the lava, the closest they had been since the eruptions.

“Can you feel it?” asked Jens, holding out the palm of his hand.

As they ascended, hours of tramping through dead ash, the air cooled. Lazlo confirmed what they had heard numerous times on their trek north. The mountains were the only safe place now. By nightfall the temperature had dropped enough for them to lie down in their winter jackets. They were both awake before dawn, barely speaking as they ate and packed. Sylvia’s cough seemed worse than before, and they argued over whether she should wear the respirator.

“I’m not going to make it,” she said, “so what’s the point?”

Jens prevailed, his persistence wearing her down until she relented with a groan.

At midday they came to the cliff walk, a narrow track hewn out of rock, one side of which fell away into great glowing lava pools thousands of feet below.

“Remember what you promised,” she said, crooking her little finger.

He nodded, linking his finger with hers. They hugged, and he whispered, “I promise.”

Jens went first. The fine layer of ash on the ground bore no trace of footsteps.

“There hasn’t been anyone across for days,” he said, reaching his hand back to clasp Sylvia’s. “Just tread in my footprints.”

For more than a hundred metres the path was clear of debris, and wide enough for a secure footing. But then it deteriorated over the course of a dozen steps until it was barely narrow enough to walk without turning sideways. Reliable handholds were scarce, but they pressed ahead in the knowledge that others had succeeded.

At one place, the edge had crumbled away to such an extent it required a small leap to cross the gap. Jens went first and then leaned over, grasping Sylvia’s wrist to ensure her boots remained in contact with solid rock. And so they progressed, finally coming in sight of the end.

The sun had long since passed overhead and night would descend within an hour or two. Then the unthinkable happened. Sylvia tottered on the edge, her arms swirling as she tried to swim her way back to the wall. By a stroke of fortune, Jens made contact, grabbing her fingers. For a moment it looked as if would be able to stabilise her, but she lurched backwards.

“You promised,” she mouthed, as his finger failed to hold her.

And he did. He remembered his promise to outlive her because Sylvia had told him she wanted to go first because she could not bear to be alone in the world without him. 

Monday, 9 October 2017

The Internet Half Hour

[Media prompt] Home secretary Amber Rudd says viewers of online terrorist material in England face 15 years in jail.
The Internet Half Hour

It was Saturday evening, and at ten o’clock Jim was rostered for his allotted thirty minutes. He looked forward to it each week, often preparing in advance for days. But tonight, with less than an hour before he took control of the seat, he was still undecided.

He had overheard Caroline whispering about an attack in Berlin, a big one, but could tell by the way she was sighing it had been a rumour. Now she sat looking at a blank screen. Jim looked at the timer. In ten minutes they would shut her out and it would be Stephen’s turn. There was a noise outside in the street, but after a moment things quietened down.

He must have been thinking, because when he looked at the timer again Stephen had less than a minute left. Everyone said it was something to do with Muslims. At first he refused to believe it, almost getting into a fistfight with some converts from the north over it. But now he wasn’t so sure.

After taking the seat, he sat staring at the screen until out of nervousness he searched for a list of Wimbledon winners before the new era. He liked tennis better before it got violent. As he looked at the names he felt his mouth go dry. When he tried to swallow it felt like there was something blocking his throat. Before he knew it, he typed ‘Muslims and blackouts’. The screen went dark.

A Guard, one Jim hadn’t seen before, pulled him roughly from the chair, standing him against the wall before sounding the alarm. Three others burst through the door within seconds, throwing him to the floor. A sharp spike of pain shot up his arm, numbing his neck and left shoulder. Then the largest of them knelt on his back and twisted his arms behind him.

In the small room behind the terminal, a woman dressed in black looked at him before asking his name and ID number. He answered truthfully because they knew if he lied. They knew more about him than he remembered.

“Why’d you search for blackouts?” the woman asked. “What’re people saying about Muslims?”

Explanations were more difficult than answers.

“Nothing, really, just that, you know, you go off in your own little world and lose track of time, I don’t know, I heard…”

The woman waited while he tried to remember what had heard.

“That maybe it was something to do with Muslims.”

He wished he had some water now. His throat was sore and it was hard to talk. Although he knew you could never hear your real voice, it sounded thick and hoarse to him. The woman had a glass on the table in front of her. There was a tear of condensation running down the side.

“Who’s been saying this? About the blackouts?”

They would want a name. They always did. At night alone in bed he sometimes imagined himself holding out under questioning, refusing to give in. But everything seemed more difficult when it was happening outside of your head. His first thought was Caroline. She was to blame for all this, her nonsense talk about Berlin and another attack. If it wasn’t for her, he would never have thought about the water. But she had so many merit points that nobody would believe him.

“Nobody,” he said. “Nobody’s said anything about it.”

He winced as the first jolt coursed through his body, his teeth clenching involuntary. The woman looked at him as one might watch a monkey in the zoo. Jim closed his eyes. They could go to Hell.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

A future without immigrants? More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon

It’s unfair to flay Sturgeon for imagining the next psychic evolutionary stage of humanity sans immigrants, but reading More Than Human in 2017 it’s hard to overlook. Published in 1953, how could he have known traitorous politicians would alter the immigrant intake mix a decade later? How could he have foreseen the invasion that would result? He couldn’t, of course, but it does make you aware of how sci-fi naiveté has sometimes – unwittingly or not – laid the foundations for America’s cultural demise. Sturgeon might not have seen the coming invasion, but he was a booster for multiculturalism. And for that he needs a good kick in the literary bollocks.

There were moments when I thought this book was going to take off, only to be disappointed each time. Of the three sections that comprise it, the third was the weakest, with pages of exposition that could have added immeasurably to the story if they were shown to us. As it stands, an unkind reader might say the author got tired and wrapped everything up as quickly as possible. But I’m not unkind and note that Sturgeon originally published the second part as a standalone novella; the other two added for the novel.

It would be remiss to ignore the psychoanalytic aspects of the book. The dark art of psychology gives me no cause for hope, and authors with substantive investment in it provide less. It’s the weakest facet of the story, and it would have been stronger without pages of 50s-era mumbo jumbo.

Having said all that, it’s still worth reading, and probably rises above most stories that win Hugo or Nebula awards these days.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Crying Cassie

[Social media prompt] I am cassie @cryingcassie · 10h Me finding out it was a Las Vegas country concert so they were probably all trump supporters [Mariah Carey clapping gif]. I am cassie @cryingcassie · 1h Replying to @cryingcassie I honestly want every single trump supporter dead. This isn’t a tweet for attention. If you support trump I want you 6 feet in the ground.
Crying Cassie

The sun is coming up as we climb the last few steps, breathing like hunting dogs.

“One hour,” Cassie says. “Exactly.”

It’s a good time. I swing my pack off to get at a bottle of water, and stand looking across the flatland below us. On a clear day you can see all the way to the sea, but there’s some weather forming and the horizon’s closing in.

“It’s like you’re standing on the edge of the universe.”

I know what she means. There’s no clanging in the street, no dogs sniffing around your ankles. No Mr. Finns saying ‘hello love’ as they try to peer down your top. It’s as though the light this early in the morning is God’s way of cleaning things up. Letting you know he’s here. I keep that to myself. Cassie’s no believer in God. No believer in anything, really.

“If I killed you up here,” she says, sitting down on great grey stone, legs splayed like a man’s, “how long do you think it’d be before they found the body?”

Cassie moved to Windfell earlier this year. The first day I saw her, she reminded me of a dog that’s been kicked its whole life. Always hanging back, keeping her eye out for an opportunity. The kind of dog you want to take home and feed. But not everything added up. Her father worked in the foundry where everyone said he was quiet and never touched a drop. Then there’s her mother, always wearing dresses with flowers on them. I saw her in the shops, dropping lunch off at school, helping out with the roster. They didn’t seem the kicking kind.

One day she told me she’d seen Mr. Lombardy in the street, and before she knew it he had his hand under her dress. It was as though my mother said she cooked the cat for dinner. Later I discovered he was out of town. It was the first time anybody had lied to me about something so important. I began to pay attention.

She started quoting Marx and Gramsci to me. Marcuse was her favourite. Or so she said. I don’t think she read any of them. She said she talked online to people who were part of the resistance, fighting Nazis. I asked her where the Nazis were in Windfell, and she said they never show themselves in public. “You need to watch closely to identify them,” she told me.

I think over her question, about how long it would take to find my body. “It could be ten minutes,” I say. “There could be somebody coming up right now. Or maybe it’d take a week, even ten days if the weather gets bad.”

“Don’t look so worried. It’s just the sort of thing I think about sometimes.”

I sling my pack on again, just in case. The sun is warming the back of my neck. I put a hand to my hair, feeling the heat. I once read the distance between the sun and earth varied five million miles a year, but we’re closer in winter. It hardly seems believable. I walk over to a line of pointed rocks buried in the ground, a row of them like back spines on a dinosaur. When I step on them, I feel their blunt points through the sole of my shoe. My dad always says if you step on all three without losing balance it shows a true heart.

“Cassie, you should try this.”

Sergeant McHoul asks me later how long it was before I realised Cassie wasn’t there. I tell him I had no idea. She didn’t make a sound. At night, before I go to bed, I pray for her, but the little voice inside my head says to prepare for worse news. There are rumours she had a secret Twitter feed, and if that’s true who knows what’s going to come out.

Friday, 6 October 2017

The Insurance Adjuster

[Social media prompt] The world’s first molecular robot has just been created by UK scientists.
The Insurance Adjuster

Juan Martinez Pineda jolted awake, his sheets damp from sweat. He had slept well all his life; his mother boasting she never lost a minute’s sleep from the day she brought him home from hospital. But lately things had changed. For seven or eight weeks, he had barely slept through, waking from dreams that crawled into his mind but which he could never remember. He tried to recall now, but the more he struggled the deeper the terror crept back into its shell. After a while he gave up and rolled over, losing himself with killing the white bitch at the reception counter. But that was a fantasy, not a dream. The dreams came later, and when his eyes shot open a second time in the hour before dawn he lay shivering on the wet sheets until the sun came up.

In the first week of fall last year, Juan had set out from New York for Miami. Although the bite of winter was months away, he felt the cold seeping into his joints. He knew people in the south. They told him that white girls with balloons for breasts and heads filled with air dangled like fruit from the trees. “All you got to do is pick them, man.” It was true. When he arrived, the streets were full of dental floss bikinis and white skin toasted so brown it looked like plastic. “The Mexican,” said his cousin, “is the last man with balls in America. That’s why white women come here. They’re ready for plucking.”

Picking fruit is child’s play, but only when it’s ripe. A gentle grip, the smallest rotation of the wrist, and there you are; an apple so smooth and round and firm that the very idea of biting into it sounds sacrilegious. Before it’s ready, though, and the apple puts up a fight. You twist, pull and shake the branch, the very tree trunk swaying, all the time muttering violent curses until it comes away, bruised and barely edible.

On Christmas Eve, Juan and his cousin plucked a green apple, bikini barely covering pneumatic breasts, the soft down on her cheeks separated by a thread and burned blonde from the Florida sun. As they pushed her into the van, Juan inhaled the odour of white girls who lie on the beach all day, which he associated with barbecued meat and a hint of coconut. He never even asked what her name was.

Flying back to Boston, Amber Bronte promised herself she wouldn’t cry when she saw her mother and father, and she didn’t. But on New Year’s Eve she tearfully recounted what happened in Miami to her sister, and the gates of Hell broke from their hinges. Mr. Bronte, an individual of substantial means, met a man several weeks later in a Motel 6 out of town. His business card indicated a line in insurance adjusting, which was half right. Bill MacNeice had no truck with insurance, but he did know quite a lot about adjustment.

“Molecular machinery,” he said to Mr. Bronte, “it’s more advanced than most people realise.”

Introducing it was easy enough. A tear from an eyedropper was all it took. And the adjustments began. Bill MacNeice was correct; nanorobotics had advanced. Lodged in Juan’s brain, it began to reset neurotransmitter and neural pathways, bypassing some, blocking others, forging connections long since made redundant by evolution. It was remarkable, he sometimes thought, how a man’s internal world could be altered to drive him slowly to death.