Big Echo

Critical SF

A Saddening Bore (from Munchausen by eproxy resin)

by Robert Kiely

A four-propellered drone, oldish, whizzes by pigeons. The flock disperses over a bridge, joins some newer models and zips after a train departing into a tunnel so the sensors alter, visions overlap all over the place, the vectors and nearby flight paths mapped in graft. The buttonhole-thermometer of pollution is made instantly visible. It is 2030 and the place is London. Dogged representatives uncover a strained set of sexual assertions beneath the everyday goings-on of the Executive in question, Elon Musk, and across the gloss one inverse-minority resigns; other figureheads frantically offer rejoinders; a weak prime minority finds the mushrooms of discouragement within her swimmers. Nooria is nearby; and suddenly the suspension of her gradation and her ability to deliver any goods whatsoever have all been thrown into disapproval. 

“We’ve had enough of this genre,” a furious young writer of Parody-memoirs named Percival told Tom in the Newcombe Sheesh bar. “It’s frankly embarrassing. What has it ever given us? No quiche, and now sexuality and sleaze. Last weigh-in, my genre changed from quietly placating to FUCK.” 

A smallish drone had knocked his drink.

“It’s not funny anymore, peeps,” he said to the receding drone.

It didn’t react.

He returned to his subject-matter with Tom. Percival is livid and disbelieving at the tarnishing of the nape of Mandarins two or three deceptions older, and does not seem to realise that Tom is one such. He and the malcontent of his pegs do not think of themselves as decent mainstream Moguls.

Nooria is celebrating her contract with Elon. But this writer doesn’t seem to realise that Tom is of her party.

Then it turns out he does.

“If you know Nooria, you must have some contacts for me? I’m an astrologer really. And we need to starchart Mars-births adequately if anything like a new gentility is to be interpellated anew.”

Tom nodded, scratching the area where his chin should be, and gave him a fictional contact, a Mandarin perhaps twenty deceptions before his own time.

A week before, Nooria had flown to Los Angeles for an interview.

“You know what? I just think sometimes that the particular childhood I had helped me to have a certain kind of escapism. But also that this kind of regular criticism basically made me pretty harsh on myself and then on others. But in turn, this means I deliver fucking results, y’know what I mean? Like, I think most people go through their life fuckin about, y’know? And what’s the point? Like, why bother?

“I visited a beach one day in 2020 in a secluded area on a continent which doesn’t need to be specified, it doesn’t matter where, and a load of dead dolphins washed up. It was like a cascading screen, but of real-life dead dolphins. … It fucking stank. I looked out, obviously I thought about our own extinction. Selfish, I know. I looked at the sea of meat, repulsed and shocked and in awe. I plugged into the net, checked the reports. It was a mystery.” He chuckled awkwardly. “It wasn’t clear what had happened. It was so obvious that it was human-caused on some weirdly indirect level that it was completely blasé to say so, so each stream competed to be as weird as possible in its interpretation. The declining rate of the truth of discourse due to inter-discursive competition. The carcasses were pink. They all seemed bloated, no grey anywhere, as if long dead. Em, there was the odd creak and shuffle of carcass rubbing against carcass, it seemed as if the bodies paved the sea for about 100 metres out to sea.

“I knew we couldn’t do it anymore. Everyone knew, but I knew.”

There was a pause.

“You realise you could be fired at any moment if you worked for me.”

“Yes.”

This isn’t, thinks Nooria, the interview I was expecting.

“Do you think I’m crazy, Nooria?”

She was prepared for this question.

“Yes.”

He smiled.

“Are you willing to work hours as long as mine?”

She smiled.

“Yes, Mr. Musk.”

A young Elon in the 1980s told his father about his dreams of America.

“I’ll go there and own a massive house, I’ll be an inventor.”

A sigh.

“What will you invent?”

“Cars.”

Cars have already been invented.”

His father brooded.

“You can’t be inventing things that already exist. And this is all just a pipe dream anyway. I bet you won’t be able to work hard enough to afford a plane ticket for America. They only take hard workers in America.”

“I’ll work hard.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“Hey Zoya!”

Zoya walked in the door, with a mop and bucket.

“You can go home, Elon is going to do your work.”

She looked confused but in the space of a second it flickered to resignation and then back again for two or so iterations.

Errol gave Zoya her money. Elon was slightly confused too.

“Huh?”

“Go on, show me you can work hard. Show me you’ll get to America.”

Elon took the mop and bucket.

“Huh.” Errol said gruffly. “Pfft. America. Cars. Inventor, my arse.”

Darren and Nooria and Tom and Intafor and Jeremy and Qin went to the Newcombe Sheesh bar. On the numerous LED displays, the price of beer streams. They look around for something to buy.

“Hey, Bar… I’ll bet two pints of Denyares that the Umpsaims goes down by 40 pence in the next hour.”

Qin beeped his implant against the scanner.

“Nice.”

Tom played it safe, and just bought what he wanted to drink.

“No betting tonight? You’re usually into it?”

Intafor seemed to have other ideas.

“I want to buy every pint of Maulayresibutonack you’ve got at the current price, and mark them up 20 pence.”

There was a little wave of irritation and silence. The music seemed to dim. The market didn’t appreciate such things. Especially so early in the day, 5:30pm.

But Intafor had already been drinking, clearly. He smirked, beeped, and glared around the room.

“Will you finish ‘em if they don’t move eh?” someone jafted.

Intafor thought, hook, line, and sinker. He made a waspline straight for the speaker, and knocked him out. Then he dragged the limp body to the bar, and made the man buy two Maulayresibutonack.

The entire place might break out into a melee, even though it was relatively empty. Someone ran outside, and seemed to be gathering the smokers to come inside.

Tom asked Nooria why Intafor had been invited.

“He got me the job,” Nooria said.

People began to vote on the poll in the background on how violently to eject Intafor. Some dividing lines were drawn up, essentially between those who thought it would all blow over and Intafor wouldn’t do it again, and the majority opted for a mildly rough extrication. During the voting, the bar was filling up. Smokers and onlookers from the street were pooled in. Tom stood back and looked at the displays. He noted that all prices were rising. They had discussed this before – as regulars, they noted that the fluctuations were much too frequent to have anything to do with the pints served in real-time in this bar, and to integrate the sales across all bars would be semi-ridiculous (the whole point was that there was a fixed number of pints every night in these bars). There was a range of values within which pices flickered millisecond to millisecond, and he had even heard rumour of interstices of non-price. In general, the more people in the bar, the prices rose slightly. Everything went up, but the algorithm, noting a pre-existing hike in Maulayresibutonack, let it stand. Although he had been kicked out, Intafor had ensured the bar was hopping, and made £100. He laughed himself stupid at the next place.

The whole plan had an additional angle from which its brash elegance could be viewed – at the end of the week the algorithm would order too much Maulayresibutonack, not realizing there had been an aberration the previous week. Intafor would drink cheaply that week too, and try it again at another bar in another district.

Tom shook his head. He knew that Intafor had to be invited given the context, but really.

Percival cornered Tom after chatting to Nooria.

Another time, Elon brought his father a cardboard model of a new kind of flying car.

Errol, an engineer, pestered him.

“It’s not aerodynamic. Those tiny things aren’t wings, they won’t keep it up.”

“They will, they will, with the jet propulsion beneath it. “

“Jet propulsion. Not a very fuel-efficient way to deal with all this now is it?”

Elon paused. He wasn’t sure what to say.

“How much do you bet it will fly?”

“A hundred!” Elon said.

Elon was thinking about the fact that he’d build it in the future. Further into the future than a few minutes.

“Really? Shake on it?”

They shook, Elon’s hand tiny in calloused mitts. Errol went upstairs. And threw it from the landing. It crumbled. He had thrown it down with force.

“Was that flying?”

Elon was upset.

“Elon, was that flying? Or was that falling?”

Elon was silent.

“Elon, what does falling mean? Is that when things go straight down and hit the ground?”

Elon remained silent.

“That’s what it is, isn’t it? And moving forward a bit, or gliding, that would have been flying in this instance, wouldn’t it?”

Elon was silent.

“Go get the money, Elon.”

Elon went upstairs. He had R58.63.

“That’s fine, I’ll be nice, you can keep the rest,” said Errol.

He ruffled his son’s hair.

“You’re a man of your word. If you didn’t hand that over, I’d be worried about your future.”

Elon went upstairs and lay down.

From a young age Tom and his childhood friend Anatoliy would discuss leaving the planet. They constructed elaborate ideas about what would be elsewhere, imagining prepopulated planets when younger. The chat wasn’t so much about running away from annoying parents as escaping earth’s gravitational pull. Domed communities. The colour red and its cultural associations. A beautiful commune and terraforming tendrils. With excitement, the storms and battening down hatches and living completely independently, not even off the land, but from their own ingenuity and technological know-how in the face of ineffable odds. It was the early 2000s.

By degrees, they immersed themselves in fields related – well, very tangentially.

Years later, as adults, the desire to leave wasn’t quite as strong.

They went to a Mars-meetup. It was 2027.

That was where they met Intafor.

At that time, Intafor was running a startup. The tagline of his dating site was it’s what’s inside that counts. It was for people who liked to not only look at selfies of prospective lovers, but also scans of their internal organs.

They also met Jack, who wanted to go to Mars to escape just about everything.

“I just want to be done with it, man. I just want to meditate, be closer to God. Our origins. Whatever. I want to be closer to it. Mars is like the best place for a hermitage site. Fasting, all that shit. I’m super into it.”

Nooria wanted to go for much different reasons to Intafor. She was more like, let’s be at the forefront. Let’s push boundaries, do things never done before. That was where they were coming from. Tom tagged along.

“What will you do when you get to Mars?”

“I want to go for a walk, knowing no-one has stepped there before. I wanna do long spacesuit hikes. I kinda want to get caught in a storm or something like that.”

Nooria raised her eyebrow, and Jack vacillated.

“Nothing too bad, just lose contact for a bit, and survive of course. That’s what I’d be really into.”

The thing about the Baron Munchausen is that he pulled himself out of a swamp by his own boot-straps. Or pigtails. Depending on who you read.

He went to a war – a real war, I guess – and he came back and he exaggerated a few claims. He exaggerated them to get by. Maybe he did so to make the story exciting. Maybe he did so with a wink and a nod. Maybe he did so to cover up for something genuinely awful. I mean, who knows? I’d say he did it as bullshit. It’s very likely he believed his own bullshit. It’s possible he believed he could pull himself out of a swamp by his own willpower, essentially. There is no difference between the illogic of Munchausen and people who esteem their own willpower. Oh, you can just make that happen, can you? You can just get out of that swamp?

The swamp is Earth. Success is Mars.

Animals are genetically engineered hybrids interweaving pugs, capybaras, rhesus monkeys, and rabbits. They have long rabbit ears, a hoppy gape, a bright red ass, a serene and long face, and nimble arms. It was genetically engineered to be hilarious to humans. Tom wished he worked in an office with an Animal. He had hoped one day to buy an Animal. But the job he currently has, despite his engineering prowess, was engineering admin. What that means is sorting different sized nuts and bolts found in a waste-dump, putting them into the right rinses to get them nice and clean again. But, of course, on a more abstract, conceptual, speadsheety-level.

There were no Animals in his office. The Animals had been genetically engineered to lead bafflingly short, stupid lives solely for human amusement and YouTube views, it was apparently considered too much to ask an Animal to live in the environment where Tom worked.

Oh well.

The one good thing was that as he worked he could watch quite a lot of videos of Animals. Animals chilling in a hot spring, Animals over-reacting to avocados, Animals suckling on the wrong teat.

Still though. If only he could get one of his own.

Tom eyed the Animals, mildly hungover. One was tickling another with its thumbs. It gave him real pleasure, watching these buffoons. Their quivering nostrils were just. So. Cute. All that panting. He watched and watched, perhaps 40 feeds tiled across two of his four monitors. He rewatched some. He wasn’t really paying that much attention to his augments. They were indicating to him how much of his surplus work he was getting back during this paid-but-not-proper-working-work-time. He noted dutifully at about the 50% mark that he had gotten a lot of his value back, and even if it wasn’t a great day, he decided he should really get on with it.

Most workers in the office knew to not really break the 60%.  It just wasn’t done. Everyone knew why they were giving a surplus back – for the good of the super-organism of which they were part. And to get people to Mars. The surplus was a way of paying forward – if not to your children, then to futurity itself, the futurity of the species. So it rwas grimaced upon to re-absorb your surplus value added beyond the 60% mark. You may as well, the wisdom went, not show up at all. But that would be pretty selfish of you.

Things in the escape room weren’t going very well.

“Tom will you check that picture frame, maybe there’s something behind it?”

Tom had already checked it, but checked again lest he should be seen to be not participating.

“Guys,” Holly was saying, “I’m not really sure this, err, team thing is working.”

They had divided up into groups to tackle certain areas, thinking that this was a clever way to get out. But all they had found was a key to a lock, a key that had been hidden inside a hollow kitchen-table-leg. But they couldn’t find the lock for it.

In a sense, they had stumbled upon the way out immediately, but thereby made it harder for themselves.

The whole shtick with the Escape Room was that the magician from the apartment had disappeared. You had to find him, or figure out how he disappeared.

The team had been a bit disappointed before being told about this storyline, which was a bit more goody-two-shoes or cleaner than the one they’d wanted (the receptionist had said there had been a double-booking or something?).

Nooria and Intafor had started to shout at each other.

Then, the lights all went off, and Nooria screamed.

When the lights came on, she was lying on the floor.

Everyone looked around at each other.

“Is this a bit?”

They checked her. She was cold and limp. They checked her head.

Intafor had been shouting at her when the lights went off, right next to her. People eyed him.

“It’s just a bit! I didn’t do anything,” Intafor said.

“Em, how long until we get out?” Emily said. “I’m not super into this anymore.”

“No, no, come on, it’s team-building, right?” Intafor chuckled uneasily. “They musta convinced her to do this, like, they want us to really feel the fear, so they told us the murder mystery was booked up…”

“She’s dead?!”

“No, no…”

“Look, let’s just cancel it from now, yell the safe work at the camera.”

Everyone turned to the camera and said “Pimlico.”

Everyone except Intafor.

For everyone to get out, everyone has to agree to get out.

But he was adamant that this was art of the game.

“This is, like, a really elaborate test guys! Come on! You know me and you know what a messer Nooria is!”

It was unclear what was happening to all involved. The tension was heightening. Intafor was still insisting she was fine, that it was all a joke. The situation was getting very weird. Tom finally decided that some clarity was needed.

“Look, we’ve tried to get out, no response, so maybe the best thing is for one person to look after Nooria.”

Some people nodded. Emily was cradling Nooria’s head, and said, “Sure, fine, I’ll look after her.”

Tom was upset, but didn’t let it show.

“Now let’s find a fucking way out, because I really need to piss.”

They searched under the table again and then stepped back a bit, I mean metaphorically, together, and the table seemed to have some unusual dips and features in it, and then it seemed that it might be a map of the room. Frank had a particular passion for this way forward, and stuck with it to the end. Everybody was picking up random utensils in the kitchen and trying to read words into the water-marks. Stains on the wall gathered meaning. And then gradually they all came down to listen to one person. They slowed down and simplified. Tom and Intafor worked back from the one clue they had found to eventually find the key out in re-arranging some post-it notes on some weighing scales.

When they got out of the room, no one was there. It was like everyone had gone home. There was no one to confirm if it had been planned or a joke or not.

Nooria still had a deep unease about what had happened. The absence of explanation. Intafor hadn’t been in touch as much since his apology, until he said he wanted to put her forward for a job. She had just finished a PhD in Engineering. Sure, she replied. How’ve you been?

Tom sits at his desk. He doesn’t have anything to do. He tries to look busy, he pops open Excel and Word variously, checks data streams, peeks around the edges of already-read emails. He isn’t exactly sure what other people are doing, most people seem busy enough but also when he offers help very few people seem to need it. The desk is cluttered by papers of what has already been done. Notepads, stationary, a staple-remover gasps beneath five monitors.

After they walked home with Qin, Nooria and Tom finally had a proper chat.

He asked about the hours.

“All hours,” she said.

“Jesus,” he shook his head. “Well, if that’s what you want.”

She was drunk. Her expression changed.

“I have goals, Tom. I want to get to Mars. It’s a bit bigger than getting a stupid pet! A fucking breathing gimmick!”

He was hurt, but he had also gotten used to barbs like this. He brushed it off.

“So, you’ve got a ticket?” Tom said.

He was happy for her. He insisted it was the case.

 “Look,” said Nooria, “you can’t ask me not to go.”

Tom knew this.

What it meant for the relationship was unclear. But they collectively deferred that as a concern.

He asked about her luggage, sneaking in, trying to make light.

She made tea.

“When are you flying to LA tho?”

“Next week,” she shouted from the bathroom. “Will you come?”

He was annoyed that she was asking again.

“I’ve already said I would! Do you want me to?”

She did, she did, she did.

They flew to Los Angeles the next week.

“You know what, boys?” Errol said to Elon and his brother Kimbal in the irksome tone of those imparting wisdom, “Never get too big for your boots. Keep them the same size as your feet.” A pause. “Don’t over-reach, only fools over-reach.”

Elon and Kimbal looked from the chainsaw on the floor to each other, and then nodded at Errol.

“Tell you what though, I bet you can both get some firewood down the road. We need some. You’ve seen me do it before, right?”

Elon vaguely remembered the process.

“Atta boy!”

Errol handed Elon the chainsaw.

“There’s a wheelbarrow round back. Take down a small tree, away from any cables, and bring it back here. OK?”

“Sure thing!”

Down the front drive they went, Elon pushing the barrow with the chainsaw in it.

Cricket-noise grew. A lilac roller flashed out of a low treetop. Elon and Errol glimpsed its verdant underside.

“What’s that?” asked Kimbal.

“Let’s do that one,” said Elon, indicating the tree it had come from.

“Yeah!”

Elon grabbed the chainsaw and cut a small wedge in the direction he wanted the young tree to fall.

After more cuts, he let Kimbal push it.

It whooshed down, and nature’s sounds grew around it. And on it.

“Look!” a shocked Kimbal pointed.

Midway up its eleven-foot, baby birds chirped manically.

Kimbal began to cry.