Chemical Flight

In the old days, it would seem – though of course nothing on EduChannel is to be consumed without a pinch of salt – there were many ways in which a person could exit the life biological. Only the other day I was reading of a woman in mediaeval “times” who, finding herself without food or income, threw herself from a high cliff. Such places were popular. Star-crossed lovers jumped to their death, entwined in each other’s arms: romantic, and nowadays quite impossible. Our integrated bio-sensors do not give us that choice.

In the old days, so they say, there was something called the French Foreign Legion. Young men with broken hearts would run away to join this military band, and a combination of fierce discipline and the harshest of desert suns would cauterise their memories of Daisy, or Pearl, or whoever.

Once upon a time, so they say, a person unable to stomach his or her existence – cruel past, poor education, lack of opportunity – could ‘escape’ after a fashion by injecting themselves with the most unbelievably primitive and fatally addictive drugs such as heroin, or by consuming large quantities of liquids collectively known as ‘alcohol’, which would eventually destroy the liver. Nowadays, of course, even if these ‘alcohol’ substances could be accessed, a liver would not permit itself to be compromised.

A person in prison could starve themselves to death, though force-feeding was sometimes employed by the authorities to counteract this. A person could throw themselves in front of a mode of transport known as a ‘train’, or drive something known as a ‘car’ at 100 mph with their eyes tightly shut, in a thunderstorm. A person could brandish a gun in a public space, or brandish a Samurai sword at a police officer, with the clear expectation of being gunned down. ‘Death by cop’, that was called.

So many appalling choices, but now only one: chemical flight (ChemFli).

ChemFli, as most of you will know, was a by-product of the Time Race of Cen22. Difficult to credit it now, but in that region of the time ‘experience’ scientists assumed that time was linear, as experienced by that most deceptive of organs, the human brain. People actually thought in term of Past, Present and Future. They assumed that if only the right craft could be invented – a “time machine” – H G Wells wrote a novella (a smallish-sized fictional offering) on this subject in late Cen19 – such a contraption could ‘take them back’ to earlier times or even ‘take them forward’ to times which had not yet occurred. Of interest also might be series of films collectively entitled Back to the Future in which a mad professor type drives a car-transport ‘backwards’ in time from 1985 to 1955, and subsequently ‘forward’ into the ‘future’.

A prototype of such a machine was eventually developed by the IndoChinese Alliance in early Cen22. The world held its breath as scientists attempted to launch it into a figure-of-eight test orbit – from the Present ‘out’ to the Past, back through the Present, ‘out’ into the Future and to the Present again. Thankfully the flight was unmanned: it is now known that any living creature on board would have been mentally ‘scrambled’ by the experience. Instead, the craft was packed with the most up-to-date technology designed to register exactly where – or ‘when’ the craft disappeared to.

What happened was – apparently – nothing. The machine made a lot of noise, but – apparently – remained on the launch pad. However, the project was by no means the disaster it first seemed. Much data had been recorded during the ‘flight’. This data, when analysed – a task which in itself took several years – demonstrated that Past, Present and Future were all happening at once, ie that ‘time’ was in fact a particle – a single point which, from certain points of view – notably that of the human brain – would appear to be a wave. This discovery was to have long-term and unexpected consequences.

For some humans the need for escape from the horrors or constraints of their physical existence remains as strong as ever. But all means of escape have now been closed off, apart from one: ChemFli. Instead of technology we now have a simple drug, based upon, but not identical to, what was once known as psilocybin or ‘magic mushroom’: Cybin7.

Having made the choice, and signed his consent, the subject permits himself to be injected with a carefully calibrated dose of Cybin7. Care must indeed be taken: a fraction too much will result in physical death, a fraction too little in madness. The subject’s body is then retained in stasis whilst he – or she – is freed from it, and from the unbearable present moment. He – or she – finds themselves able to move, as it were ‘sideways’ in time, in any direction, experiencing what would once have been thought of as Past or Future, or even, occasionally, both at once. However, he can never return to ‘now’; and he cannot control where – or rather ‘when’ he travels. He has become a cork bobbing on an ocean, a particle of dust in the air, forever the gypsy in ‘time’.

Some of you may be aware that I have a personal interest in this subject, since my own son chose to avoid a life sentence for murder by signing up to the ChemFli programme. The thing was done before I knew it.

I can follow his ‘visuals’ of course – flashes of experience, faces he sees, views – sometimes. I viewed an execution through his eyes once – a knife-like device released from a great height. These fragments of witness – from my son and thousands of other ChemFli volunteers – have proven invaluable to historians. They use them to piece together a new ‘history’ and predict our communal ‘future’.

For me it is different. I simply miss him.

(Flash fiction: 969 words)

Becalmed

It doesn’t flash, it drifts, whatever they say.

Images came to him, one after another. Lying on his back, he let them do what they would. They seemed in no particular hurry to play themselves out.

Sometimes he looked up at the sky, which was a livid purple, with streaks of orange. Back home, or down home, such a sky would have meant a cold wind, distant thunder, rain on the way. He would have been shivering. But here it was pleasantly warm. This was not home. He counted the many-sized moons and noted their by now all-too familiar arrangement in this all-too familiar sky.

That would be his first request. To lie once more beneath a blue sky and watch white, summer clouds drifting over the shallow hills and valleys of his boyhood: blue and white and green. He had made daisy chains, but out of buttercups. The stems of buttercups were different from the stems of daisies. They had little corners and angles to them. The juice got under your fingernails as you split the stems: blackish-green.

And then there was the time by the river. He had been sitting on the bank, high up, looking down, and a girl was playing in the water. His parents were there too, but taking no notice. The girl wore a black one-piece, slick with water. She was swimming with the green weed as the current pulled downstream. Her hair drifted downstream too. She was beautiful, but he was just the wrong side of puberty to know how or why he knew.

At Brixham, his aunt and uncle had taken him out in a shallow tourist boat, with a glass bottom to it. The water was so clear, you could see the rocks and the fish. It was like Australia, he had thought at the time. Like looking down at a coral reef, except not like that.

He had lost count of the days since he and the metal wreckage came down in this corner of a foreign ocean. There might be land. He might come to land. There might be creatures. To begin with he had hoped for that. Now he saw how he might look through their eyes – a whiteish sea-worm adrift in a puffy orange flower; some slug unaccountably tumbled from the sky. Maybe they would eat him. More likely they would dissect him. Work out how he worked, what structure might hold him together. Or maybe they were not there. Maybe there was no land, and nobody.

He looked up at the purple sky one final time.

With an effort he rolled himself over, surrendering to the dayglo embrace of an alien sea.

(flash fiction: 446 words)

 

Oddly, this little story was inspired by Edward Thomas’s poem ‘Adlestrop’. His railway journey, with its brief stop at Adlestrop, took place in 1914. Nothing, and yet everything, happens in the poem. Although there is no mention of war, it is generally thought of as a war poem in that is is a longing for a lost and quieter time.

The Hapless Hannah

Branston was concerned that Markie, her current hubby, was exhibiting certain retrogressive traits. He would occasionally seem to forget his gender and attempt to patronise her.

An example: Markie didn’t as a rule pay much attention to politics or economics, but on this particular day he must have caught the tail end of an aircast whilst loading the dishwasher. It had something to do with the PM’s decision to impose selective economic sanctions upon what little remained of the United States. When Branston came in, after a stressful day at the office, Markie had launched into an explanation of this complex news item – and in words of one syllable, as they might have said last century.

It was galling, especially as she had a Masters in Geopolitics and he had a – what was it? – certificate in “Green Cuisine” from some second-rate finishing school.

Worse, on that visit to the solicitors the other day to renew their annual marriage contract Markie had so far forgotten himself as to open the door for her, as if she might be too feeble to open it for herself. The boy on reception had been watching them, and tittered behind his black-varnished fingernails.

At that point Branston seriously considered not renewing their contract at all, but she worked long hours and selecting a mate was so time-consuming. Besides, she had grown used to Markie over the four years she had had him, and he was quite good at the sex part. Of course, when he ceased to be –

She was discussing this with her colleague and sometime-lover McKaig, over lunch. The waiter was tiresomely slow in coming over to take their order, and as he passed McKaig snapped her fingers at him, causing him to jump and drop the tray he was carrying. Whilst the fool was grovelling about in the gangway trying to clear up the mess he’d made, Branston asked McKaig if she had ever experienced anything similar. She had.

What did you do about it?

I purchased a Hapless Hannah, old girl. Some men have this residual sense of superiority and entitlement, a genetically-programmed need to protect their “womenfolk”. Can you imagine it? Something to do with their hormones. But it’s easily managed. Our Hannah lives in the cupboard under the stairs, easily stowed away when not in use. When I go out, if he feels the urge hubby can set her going. And hey presto! The cyborg can be as useless and/or dependent as ever he wishes. By the time I get home he is – satiated. You should get one. Here, this is their website.

The salesman suggested that Branston make an actual analogue visit to their out-of-town showrooms.

It sounds rather as if your – colleague – has the Hannah 2.1. All right in its day, Madam, but we’re now up to the Hannah 2.7. The 2.7, unlike the 2.1, is equipped with the replaceable oh-dear-please-rescue-me pheromone cartridge, in addition to the standard don’t-know-what-to-do psycho-wave generator. The two combine to make her devastatingly effective. We also have a range of alternative ‘bleatborgs’ – our affectionate nickname, Madam – the Silly Susan and the Foolish Freda, to name but two –

Branston summoned an autax, tapped in the destination code, swiped her payment card and off they set at a steady 120 mph. Even at that speed it was a good ten minutes before the autax purred to a stop outside a chrome-and-glass display space with a window full of borgs.

She left it to Markie to unpack the 2.7 from its crate – warning him to be careful when using a sharp knife – and to wade through the instructions. After all, it was to be his little toy, and she had a finance report to finish.

At first all seemed to be going to plan. Markie was noticeably more relaxed, had even started singing over the ironing board, but most importantly he made no further attempts to patronise her. One evening Branston asked him to demonstrate the Hannah.

Markie was somewhat bashful – understandably, since this was his private little peccadillo – but she insisted upon it, and the Hannah was wheeled out. It was remarkably lifelike in its little gingham apron, a pink lurex bow askew amongst those ditsy curls. Oh dear, it said. We haven’t been introduced. I’m Hannah. Markie, please help me. Should I have curtsied just then?

Markie cleared his throat, casting a furtive glance in his wife’s direction. Don’t worry, Hannah. You only need curtsy to royalty.

Royalty? I haven’t met any royal people yet, have I Markie? Oh dear, so much to remember. I’m not sure my head will hold it all.

Sick-making, but Markie was lapping it up. After that he relaxed a bit more, to the extent that he would sometimes neglect to put the borg away before Branston got in. There the little sap would be, in the corner of the living area.

Hello, hello? Carpet robot seems to have run out of electricity. Could you remind me how to plug him in? If you can spare the time, that is?

The problem began when Branston realised the Hannah was starting to affect her too, presumably an undisclosed side-effect of those all-singing-all-dancing pheromones. Even when the Hannah was safely tucked away out of sight, Branston would be getting these embarrassing urges – just to peek in and see if the poor dear was all right, alone in the dark, not crying softly to herself or in need of a hug. Hannah must actually be appealing to Branston’s – whisper it – maternal instincts – in addition to Markie’s patronising, protecting ones.

The bleatborg was headed for the scrapheap.

And so, she then realised, was Markie.

Stranger In A Strange Land

It takes me by surprise, every time. I can be driving up the hill towards my house – the house – or staring out of my back window. I can be crossing the unmade, pot-holey road between my neighbour’s house and my own, invited – as I was yesterday – for a coffee. Even after seven – nearly eight – years in this village-at-the-end-of-the-world, I can get this feeling of unfamiliarity. I am not really here, something inside my head is saying. Any moment now I will find myself, as if by magic, in the place I actually inhabit, living the life I am actually living.

I am not here, the voice says. I am actually somewhere else, living a completely different life. I do not look like this. My name is familiar – and yet different – I am well, I am happy, I am where I should have been for the last seven – nearly eight – years and

I have never been here.

This, here, is an illusion.

What’s that called, psychologically-speaking. Alienation? Anomie? Ontological Insecurity? And what might be its cause. Something dire, I’ll be bound.

I typed it into Google and got Mumsnet, and Mumsnet, predictably, completely misunderstood the nature of my query. Back and forth these Mumsies kept assuming I meant “not being satisfied with what I’ve got” and quoting endlessly at one another some old body by the name of Joseph Campbell:

“We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned so as to live the life we have waiting for us.”

But that wasn’t what I meant, smug Mumsies! It’s some sort of existential angst, not a vague conviction that I landed on earth with the intention of being a millionaire/ess. I mean, I know all about lemons and lemonade. I have made so much lemonade out of my manky old lemons, honestly.

It’s more a feeling that any minute now I am going to wake up. Except I don’t. I am a stranger in a strange land.

Which got me wondering where I heard that phrase, and I remembered reading a very good sci-fi novel with that title, by Robert A Heinlen. 1961, he wrote it. And having remembered it, I’ll have to read it again, forthwith. Or rather she will – the version of me that’s inexplicably here, as well as being wherever else she is.

Now I discover that Robert A Heinlen was quoting someone else – The Bible. It’s in Exodus 2:22 and it’s about Moses and his wife Zipporah – or Tziporah – which means “bird”.

And she bare him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for, he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land.

And then, of course, I had to look up Gershom, for why should being called Gershom have anything to do with the case? And I find that in Biblical Hebrew, Gershom means Stranger There or Stranger Is His Name or Exile, Expelled.

So now you know.

And I know.

But who, exactly – am I?

Would you be in the B-Ark?

I may have a weird sense of humour but I particularly like a race of beings that appear in Douglas Adams’ book The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. They are called Golgafrinchans and they originated in “a red, semi-desert planet that is home to the Great Circling Poets of Arium and a species of particularly inspiring lichen”. The story is this. At some point in their history the Great Circling Poets decided they wanted to get rid of the useless third of their population. So they invented a story that the planet Golgofrincham would shortly be destroyed in a great catastrophe (by a “mutant star goat”). The useless one third of the population were packed into a spaceship know as the B-Ark – supposedly one of three giant Arks – and launched into space. They were told that the remaining two thirds of the population would follow in the other two Arks.

Of course the remaining two thirds did not follow – there were no other Arks – and the B-Ark was programmed to crash land on a remote planet on the spiral arm of the galaxy – which happened to be Earth. So they crashed. The Golgofrinchan societal rejects mingled with and usurped the native cavemen and became the ancestors of humanity.

But who were the useless third? According to Douglas Adams they consisted of hairdressers, tired TV producers, insurance salesmen, personnel officers, security guards, management consultants and telephone sanitisers.

I have always assumed – being a gloomy sort – that I would be included in the “useless third” and would find myself on a spaceship hurtling towards relative oblivion. But then I started to wonder – how do you define “useful”? Surely “useful” itself is relative, since it depends on the society you happen to find yourself living in, and the relative needs of that society? And doesn’t it depend on the intelligence of the individual, his or her store of arcane knowledge, unused skills and potential to change or adapt?

I mean, in some societies there is little choice. In our own, for instance. There are many pretty trivial jobs but most people need a job of some kind.  Inevitably this means quite a few will be left with no alternative but to become – telephone sanitisers or whatever. I’m pretty sure those bored gentlemen forced to stand/pace around for hour after hour in stores in a silly uniform as a deterrent to shoplifters, don’t really want to be doing that. They do it for the money, and for security.

Hairdressers – well, yes, in an apocalyptic situation or primitive society you wouldn’t need hairdressers. It is quite possible – as I have discovered – to cut your own hair after a fashion – at least well enough to keep it out of your eyes – or just to let it grow long. In our current society, hairdressers are somewhere between a necessity and a luxury: their function is to make people look and feel better; a good hairdresser is an artist in his or her own right. Do we really need musicians? Do we need artists, or tailors, or comedians? No, we could survive perfectly well without them if they all suddenly disappeared in a puff of green smoke.

If I were to be marooned on a desert island with a brilliant violinist, would he or she be able to save me from starvation and the encroaching tide? Probably not. On the other hand that same violinist might be good at maths (musicians often are) and might be able to calculate the tides around our island, so that we knew the most fortuitous time to set off on our raft – which he/she might even have been able to help me construct. Because being musical does not preclude you from having other talents – simple construction work, for example. That telephone-sanitiser might happen to know how to weave, or paddle a canoe. Or they might have qualities not previously utilised – a clear head in an emergency, people skills, courage under fire – whatever. Until you are tested, you don’t know what you can do.

So I would say, be careful who you write off as useless. Do not write off disabled people, autistic people, artistic people – or people who have never had much of a chance in life and so are forced to accept trivial or low-status jobs. Do not assume that that is all they are, or all they could be if circumstances were suddenly to change and a new and different version of society come into being.

It is a risky thing to define any skill or occupation a “useless” – we do not know enough, about the present, let alone the future, to be able to make such value judgments with any confidence.  Fate has a way of taking its revenge on those who are absolutely sure they know best.

According to Douglas Adams, the Great Circling Poets of Arium were eventually wiped out – by a virulent disease contracted from a dirty telephone.

From my bookcase: Flowers For Algernon: Daniel Keyes

I’m experimenting, really. Feel free to skip.

For my artsy-craftsy patchwork-selling project, which seems to be moving at snail’s pace like all of my projects, I need to be able to take still-life-type pictures on that Fire-Thingy and transfer said pictures to this Computer-Thingy. Of patchwork stuff. And sell it. That’s the idea, anyway.

It may surprise you to learn (or not) that my level of expertise is not high. More or less everything I know about computers I have worked out for myself, then usually forgotten or lost my voluminous notes for, then had to teach myself all over again. Sigh! My sole asset is a pig-headed Holmesian determination to work out, by the Application of Logic, the Elimination of the Impossible and so on, how to achieve something horribly complicated once I have set my mind to it.

This doesn’t happen very often. Usually I give up. 

So, I took the above photo. It took quite a few attempts and in the meantime I discovered that a cat had peed in my ‘budget’ tray overnight – or possibly several nights ago –  and soaked my latest budget and related papers. Also remembered that I had four letters to post and had neither washed up nor made the bed.

The photo is not a brilliant but it is, after hours of faffing about, sitting at the top of a WordPress post. Yay! My computer is now demanding a password every time I turn it on. How did that happen? Someone?

The basic idea is that every now and then I will select a book from my book case more or less at random, ‘compose’ an amateur-arty-farty still-life photo to hone my electronic photo-taking/uploading skills and then write a tiny bit about the book to make it worthwhile.

So, Flowers For Algernon was a long short-story, published in Galaxy Science Fiction in 1959, which later metamorphosed into a novel. It is a story about the friendship between a boy and a doomed laboratory mouse called Algernon. It is about the blossoming and fading of intelligence. It is about the joy of understanding everything and the grief when you realise your new understanding is fading.

How – or whether – you read it depends on your life experience, I think. If you have had to deal with disability or seen dementia in real life you may find this book closer to horror than science fiction. It’s very, very sad.

If you can cope with it, though, it’s one of the finest short stories/novels ever written. (Not for nothing does my edition of the book have MASTER WORKS printed down the side.)

Algernon is a laboratory mouse who has undergone surgery to increase his intelligence by artificial means. The story is told by a series of progress reports written by Charlie Gordon, the first human test subject for the surgery, and it touches upon many different ethical and moral themes such as the treatment of the mentally disabled. Wikipedia

It is technically brilliant because the language tracks the mental enhancement and subsequent mental degeneration of Charlie, from an IQ of 68 to an IQ of 185 and back again. To sustain that throughout a very long story – I don’t know how he did it, and mostly I do know how writers did it, even if I couldn’t do it myself.

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Flowers For Algernon

🙂

Lucy: I Am Everywhere

‘Lucy’ was one of many films I would have liked to see when they were new, but had to wait till they appeared on TV. And last night, at last, it did appear and I actually sat down and watched it, all the way through from start to finish. Like, amazing!

Mostly I get to see films on TV in snatches and completely out of sequence, and subsequently piece them together in my mind. That’s half the fun – imagining the missing segments, then finding out segment by segment that they were not the way I imagined them – or were. That way you get several films for the price of one, or rather for the price of an annual television licence. (And if I can survive long enough into old age even that will be free.)

My most watched-in-fragments film by far is The Fifth Element, which seems to haunt Freeview. Whichever channel you flick to, there it is. And I am still noticing new things it. Second would be Avatar. I love Avatar. I seem to be drawn to anything sci-fi or fantasy – unusual in a lady of my age, but it can’t be helped. On the other hand I loathe soaps. I’ve never managed to watch any episode East Enders, Coronation Street or Emmerdale for more than five minutes without being driven to switch over by the gloom, the grating accents, the hysteria, the bellowing and the inch-thick makeup.

And I do like Scarlett Johansson. If God gives me a choice next time round to look less like a giant racing-cyclist’s daughter I will ask to look more like Scarlett. Much more. The world would be one’s oyster with a face like that. And she can convey something like terror, for instance, with nothing more than an impassive face and a rapid flickering of the eyes. This is a contained reaction – terror as you and I would like to imagine we would manifest it, if about to be operated on and have a huge plastic wrap of some brain-enhancing blue crystal substance concealed amongst our intestines against our will. Terror without the screeching, the gibbering and the uncontrollable widdling.

Much as I like watching films I do not much enjoy going to the cinema, at least alone. Cinemas are dark. They are full of people who kick the back of your seat, try to grope you (well, not so much of that nowadays) continue using their mobile phones, eat, chat and dump their inconvenient children next to you. Yes, I once had a pair of parents pointing their horrible, fidgety, snot-nosed children to come and hem me in at the end of a side aisle, whilst they repaired to another part of the cinema completely. I have never known a pair of children to get up, go out to the loo, come back, sit down, get up… and so forth, so many times in succession.

No doubt I could learn how to stream films but that would mean committing myself to sitting down and watching them and – apart from the odd exception like ‘Lucy’ – that is something the inherited Mum side of me won’t let me do. Mum used to claim that it was Grandad, her father, making it impossible for her to sit down, stay put and concentrate on anything for more than two minutes, or rather her internalised, reproving father figure.

Grandad only lived along the road and had become, for Mum, a kind of troll-under-the-bridge bogeyman. After Nan died he was lonely, desperate to be useful and had a tendency to materialise at our back  (kitchen) door with an overlarge panful of peeled potatoes mid-morning (‘He will dig the eyes out – they’re full of craters!’). According to Mum if he caught her sitting down with a cup of tea he would ask her if she hadn’t anything better she could be getting on with.

As a know-it-all teenager I once pointed out to her that Grandad was merely an excuse to rationalise her naturally jumpy, hyperactive nature but she wasn’t into self-analysis. I on the other hand was gradually analysing myself away to some sort of vanishing point at which the real, spontaneous, basic me could no longer be accessed. The ‘real’ me seemed to have retreated to some kind of fantasy garden to which I had mislaid the key. And perhaps that’s why I’m so drawn to fantasy and sci-fi. Roaming these fantastical other worlds I am hoping against hope one day to meet up with me.

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