“Yeah, it was okay,” he said in a vaguely encouraging voice. “Not bad for a first effort. Just so you know, there’s not really much of a market for this type of historical retrospective fiction stuff anymore, but let me see what I can do with it for you.”
Maybe Larissa was right; maybe this guy was a charlatan in an expensive suit—‘Didn’t they always come in nice clothing?’ I’d asked her—but he seemed basically sincere and anyway, no one else was beating my door down right about now.
What was I thinking, quitting my job and trying to make it as a writer? No one really reads much anymore, and besides, by now it’s all pretty much been said. It’s all right there, words and words and more words, everywhere and all the time. What made me think I was so special that anyone would care two cents worth about my pathetic musings? So my first little tract—non-fiction published by a vanity press, how cliché!—about global warming had sold a few thousand copies, enough to get me an agent, big deal. I should’ve kept my job working for the old man. Poverty is never as sexy in practice as it seems in theory.
I never really thought much about becoming a writer. I mean, I’d always liked to write, and was okay at it I suppose, but the notion of making a living doing it had never crossed my mind. That first book on global warming—cleverly titled A Rising Tide: Cool Ideas for Hot Times, don’t you think?—was really an anomaly for me. I only wrote the thing at Larissa’s insistence, really to spite her even, just so I would fail at it and she’d finally get off my back about the whole being-a-writer thing. Lo and behold, she took that half-assed manuscript, punched it up a bit, came up with the sexy title, got it printed on a shoestring, and sent out press releases all over the place. She was so smart about it, making it seem like the book was “groundbreaking, essential reading … the Origin of Species of its time,” to quote her over-the-top promo materials. She even got me booked on talk shows, doing signings in Podunk towns, and shopping it to real New York agents. Damn thing sold almost 4500 copies, huge for a nonfiction small-press book. So who spited who, after all?
Well, at least I got my revenge on her by signing on with Omar Salaam. After all the agents she’d lined up, I went with the final one on her list, down in the area marked “last resort options” with a frown emoticon L next to it. Omar was actually the only one of the bunch to respond honestly to the query packet I’d sent him, calling my work “promising but somewhat juvenile, original in a derivative way, compelling to read but more fun to put down,” suggesting that I “don’t quit the day job” just yet, but offering to take me on as a “work in progress” because, after all, what I had to say seemed important even if there wasn’t going to be much money in it. I signed on with him the day I received his reply, driving Larissa bananas. ‘Two stones with one bird,’ I thought at the time.
I started in on my next project almost immediately after that. I’d originally set out to write another nonfiction book about the changing nature of technology and its implications for future societies, tentatively titled Generation Hexed: Materials in the Spirit World. Well, once I got into writing it, I realized that straight-up nonfiction didn’t give me enough room to explore the themes I had in mind, so I began to stretch the boundaries of factual inquiry, blurring the line between fact and fiction, creating something more like ‘faction’ as the work progressed. Anyway, it turned out that all facts were partly falsities and all fiction was partly true, so I felt like I was on mostly solid ground. The problem, of course, would come later in determining what to do with the work: everyone admires innovators in retrospect, yet a lot of them seem to die penniless and unappreciated in their time.
But hey, I couldn’t be bothered with all of that, I had a book to write. And when I say ‘had’, I mean that as in ‘no choice’, for that’s how it felt to me when it came right down to it. This wasn’t some flight of ego fancy or a way to draw more attention in my general direction. It was self-preservation, pure and simple, the inescapable urgings of my soul, the intellectual itch I was utterly compelled to scratch. (Hey, that sounds pretty poetic; maybe I was destined to be a writer after all!)
So I wrote. A lot. Some good, some bad, some usable, some junk. After a few months, the money had begun to run out, but somehow I had before me one short story that felt pretty solid, and a hodgepodge of little stories and concept pieces that I couldn’t really figure out what to do with. Well, as I re-read those small tales, I realized that they actually fit together in a way, so I worked out a clever way to connect them, and packaged them together as one story. Problem was, even taken together, they only totaled out to around 25,000 words—too long for a short story but too short for a novel. It would seem that I had, quite unintentionally, stumbled into the dreaded world of the novella.
“Just expand it, add more chapters or stretch the ones you’ve got,” implored Larissa. “It reads well, but you’ll never sell it like it is.” She could almost feel the dream of getting out of the rat race slipping away before her. Plus she was still ticked about me signing on with Omar.
“No,” I stubbornly replied. “This story stays as is, no more and no less. I have to respect the integrity of the narrative, and I will not compromise my creative vision for the crass tastes of the marketplace,” I asserted. Integrity? Creativity? Vision? Who was I kidding? I didn’t even really believe it myself. But a point was a point, after all, and besides, as I’d always suspected and was now coming to be sure of, I was really just a lazy dilettante at the core anyway. Even though the writing was hard work on some level—late nights and early mornings and headaches and sore hands—it was nothing like having to punch a clock and show up to work for someone else every day. This was like a gift from above, to be able to sit around in pajamas if I so desired, and to affect an air of ‘don’t bother me, I’m on a roll, this is really important stuff!’ So my savings were almost gone, big deal—and didn’t artists have to suffer for their work anyway?
“Oh, so now you’re an artist!” cried Larissa. “Ladies and gentlemen, meet the world famous artist! Only a few weeks ago he was a research assistant and glorified errand boy, but look at him now! From rags to riches—or is it the other way around?—what an inspiring tale!” She had a way with sarcasm. “I made you and I can break you,” she threatened, not really meaning it but looking for an outlet for her frustration—or maybe it was just her hunger talking? Anyway, things were a little tight there for a while between us, but in the end we worked it out for the best.
Well, of course, the rest—as they say—is history. As in the past. Like, long gone, behind the times, ‘so 15 minutes ago’, old-school, “Dust in the Wind,” retro, passé, blasé. Only one problem: it hadn’t actually happened yet.
* * *
“Look, I’m no expert,” said the man I’d hired as an expert, “but it seems to me like you’ve got an old-fashioned time loop working here, a type-two temporal paradox as they used to call it back in the day. Or is it forward in the day?” he mused, cackling derisively. “Anyhow, you’re basically gonna have to ride it out, and wait until tomorrow catches up with yesterday—or is it the other way ’round?—well, either way, nothin’ I can do for you except say good luck.” And with that he handed me a bill for $95 and left.
What did I really expect, anyway? I mean, here I was, a know-nothing wannabe writer long on ideas and short on words, struggling to become a struggling artist, incapable of even picking a halfway decent agent, and now stuck in some sort of weird Moebius strip where the things I remember as being in the past haven’t even happened yet. (Hmm, might even make a good story at that! Nah, too trite, too confusing, lame-o.)
Okay, so I have, or had, two choices: I could let it go and get on with things and take it one day at a time until—what did the ‘expert’ say?—the present catches up with the future, or the past catches up with the present, or some such nonsense; or I could take a pill or two and hope the whole thing would go away. Naturally, I chose—will choose?—the pill plan.
“Yes, yes, very interesting,” said Dr. Imago, the therapist Larissa found for me. How did she dig this guy up? Come to think of it, how did she uncover any of these weird factoids and connections and things? (Now that would be a good story, wouldn’t it, about some sort of psychic detective service that ascertains the arcane details of people’s lives and points them toward some wacky UFO support group or ‘lizard people’ conspiracy-theory URL that will somehow solve all of their problems? Or maybe it could also include something about the Illuminati or the Templars, huh? God, this idea really sucks!) Anyway, here I am on this guy’s smoke-smelling old couch.
“So tell me,” he continued, “when did you start having these fantasies about the future? What was going on in your life at the time? Be specific, please, if you can.”
“Um, going on? I was just doing what people normally do, working at my job—I was a research assistant to an old scientist, kind of a famous one, actually—perhaps you’ve heard of him, Carlo Satana, the Italian physicist?—well, I was just going along with things at work, investigating mundane stuff like whether the speed of light was an absolute physical limit, how many years it would take to get to Sirius in a ship powered by an ionic ram scoop engine, whether water could actually hold psychic imprints and how this could yield a new generation of man-machine interfaces, you know, stuff like that. It was all kind of derivative, I suppose, but Carlo was very well respected—he had discovered that new element on the periodic table, Quantium, after all, even though it turned out to be too unstable for use in materials or energy production—and he paid me reasonably well for my assistance, which mostly involved checking his calculations, digging up historical references, filling out grant applications, bringing him lunch and sometimes dinner, booking his flights and making hotel reservations, and generally being available to him as a sounding board for his never-ending stream of crazy theories. Not bad work for someone with a few years of college physics and a mountain of debt, I guess. Anyway, it was all pretty normal stuff until—”
“Yes, go on,” said Dr. Imago, scooting forward imperceptibly in his chair.
“Until I started writing in my spare time, usually evenings and weekends. I dunno, I guess I was sleeping less and eating more while I was writing, but things still felt the same to me at that point. And then—”
“Yes, yes?” the doctor said, scooching forward a millimeter more. (Maybe this one wasn’t a half-bad story idea after all, if this old quack was showing a pulse, huh?)
“And then, a few weeks ago over dinner with Larissa, I mentioned that it was really a tragedy what I’d heard on the news that day, about that whole crazy episode in Africa where genetically engineered cows had eaten too much genetically modified grain and somehow started losing their biological integrity, like literally just falling apart and stepping right out of their skins and dropping limbs and stuff like that, basically coming genetically unglued but on a macro level and right before people’s eyes, and then kind of disintegrating totally and leaving behind nothing but piles of a dung-like substance that some of the locals had taken to turning into burgers and frying up as a food source—what else were they gonna do with all those cow-patties, after all?—well, it was a big story that day and all kinds of commentators were going on and on about it, including these corporate hacks and bioethicists debating each other, wondering what the implications for the meat and dairy industry would be, how it would affect the cattle futures and commodities markets, whether people in the first world would still be able to get their meat supplies delivered and at what cost, et cetera. I didn’t think too much of it until I was reminded about it over dinner—Larissa had cooked up one of her ‘fake steaks’ (made of soy or fungi or something) and a salad that night—and when I mentioned it to her she said she hadn’t heard about it, but was sure she would have since she listened to the news all day—a lot of that radical alternative nauseating talk-fest crap, actually—and then after dinner she goes online and looks for the story and it’s nowhere to be found.”
“And what did you do then?” asked the good doctor, right out of the psychological training manual, no doubt.
“Well, I checked it out for myself of course, and she was right—there was no reference to this event anywhere. It was like it never happened or something. But that couldn’t be, since I recalled it so clearly and had definitely heard it that day. So I started to think that maybe it was some kind of conspiracy or cover-up by the meat industry or the genetic engineers or the corn producers or the government or someone (note: screenplay idea, done to death but they never stop producing this kind of crap, do they?), but if that was the case then someone—some blogger or industry watchdog or rogue scientist—someone would have cut and pasted a story and posted it somewhere online. The fact that there was absolutely nothing about it out there made me wonder if I’d imagined the whole thing. I had been working pretty hard, pulling long days with Carlo and his nutty theories, and then late nights trying to write something marginally useful. Still, it was disturbing, but I’d put it aside and moved on, until just the other day when—”
The doctor inched forward again, this time slightly raising an eyebrow.
“When I came home from work and Larissa pulled me right over to the computer and showed me the news headlines: cows in Africa were disintegrating and genetic manipulation was the leading theory. She asked me if I had told anyone else about the story I’d heard on this a few weeks ago, which I hadn’t, and then she started sobbing and fell into my arms—she was a real animal lover, plus had this soft spot for Africans too. Then, after things cooled off a little, she looks at me with this worried expression and tells me I should probably talk to someone about this or something? ‘Who exactly would that be?’ I thought. This didn’t seem like the kind of thing you’d just casually mention to a football buddy or the guy at the dry cleaner. Besides, no one would believe it anyway and they’d say, “Hah hah, very funny, good one, now cut the crap.” I had enough problems already what with trying to write and thinking about leaving Carlo’s place and all. So I put it aside again, convinced that the whole thing was just an aberration. But—”
“Hmm, yes, and then?” the doctor said absently, not wanting to let on that he was on the edge of his seat, which I knew since he silently shifted forward again a tiny bit more, probably unaware of this himself even. I’d always been good at reading people’s body language—shit, maybe he should be on the couch and paying me to listen.
“But the sense of things being off-kilter wasn’t going away. I started to notice it in small ways, like I’d be thinking about something that seemed like I was remembering it, and then it would suddenly happen for what felt like the first time. You know, like thinking about when I knocked my favorite mug off the counter and it broke into 50 pieces and how much I missed that stupid novelty mug—what did it say on it again? Oh yeah: ‘Today is the worst day of the rest of your life’—and then while I was remembering that, I would swing my arm around and knock the very same mug off the counter and it would break into 50 pieces, stuff like that. I started to get a lot of these sorts of weird flashes, some like feelings and others like specific memories of things, so I began to incorporate a lot of them into my stories. I originally had set out to write a nonfiction book about the implications of new technologies on future generations—you know, looking at the sociopolitical impacts of stuff like the virtual reality seX-box and subatomic microchip implants and the personal hovercraft and cryogenic organ banking and that type of thing—”
“What?” said Dr. Imago, suddenly appearing to foam a little bit at the corners of his mouth. “What’s all this? I’ve never heard of any of these technologies. As far as I know, they don’t exist.”
“They will, they will,” I half muttered. “See what I mean? I can’t get these things out of my head—not in an obsessive way, and I’m no conspiracy nut or anything—but for me these things have already happened. I can see them in my mind, I can remember when they first appeared and how the devices looked and where to purchase them and how they were used to control people and all of that. It’s all in the past, doctor—at least in my past, even if to everyone else this is all in the future. Or some possible future, I guess, I don’t know. Anyway, I called in some paranormal investigator or something, and all he did was soak me for almost a hundred bucks, which was the most predictable thing that’s happened to me lately. Then I thought maybe it was a mental or emotional problem, so I got in touch with you, and here I am. Beyond this, I’m at a loss for what to do, so I hope you’ve got some pill or catscan or something to put me right.”
“Yes, well, hmm,” said the doctor, suddenly nervous, as I could tell from his finger-tapping, “this is an interesting problem, very interesting, reminiscent of Munchausen Syndrome but not manifesting in a physical sense, yes, this could be an interesting development in the field (note for academic paper concept: ‘Temporal Munchausen and Technophobia in Modern Society’)—but be that as it may, yes, of course, I would recommend that you take some time off from work if possible and focus on your writing, as that seems to be a therapeutic outlet for you right now, and then I’d like to see you twice a week for the next few months okay?”
I could already see that there wasn’t going to be a pill for this. Maybe I’d get a good story or two out of it, and at least I could get a doctor’s note to focus on my writing, which is really what I wanted to be doing right now anyway. I suppose it could be worse, although it didn’t really solve the immediate problem of remembering things that didn’t happen and then watching them actually happen. But hey, what if I used these visions and tried to prevent the bad things from happening, or, even better, what if I figured out a way to make money from them somehow? (Now that’s a story idea, about a guy who can see the future and becomes a superhero do-gooder who’s also fabulously wealthy!) No, that’s not really my style; I’ve always been more of a watcher than a doer. And who (or what) was this Hosemuncher dude anyway? I’d have to check him out.
“Okay, doctor, thank you,” was all I said, getting up to leave and shaking his hand. It was clammy and his handshake was flaccid; I could tell he was anxious and even a little afraid of me for some reason. I knew then that he actually believed what I was saying. But there was something else about him, a look in his eyes that suggested something more—how shall I say it?—capitalistic. Perhaps he was thinking about writing a paper on me, as he’d already implied, or maybe it was something more like trying to get rich from my foreknowledge of the future. I don’t know, but I’d have to keep an eye on this one for sure. Luckily he was as transparent as a pane of glass covered in saran wrap in front of an iceberg, and I could see all the way through him to the scar tissue on his slightly enlarged heart and the latent homosexuality still lingering from his childhood ‘experimental’ phase. Yeah, I’d come back again, it might even be fun!
* * *
Turned out that, despite his possible ulterior motives, Dr. Imago’s prescription was right on the mark. Immersing myself in writing was exactly what I needed then, giving me a place to explore these memories of the future and some opportunity to make sense of them in the process. I’d already realized that nonfiction wasn’t the way to go right now, and that I needed the latitude of fiction writing to work through this—but wasn’t it the same thing anyway, if I was going to write about things that had actually happened in my mind? Argh!—but no, these were stories that needed to be told and I was the person to tell them. Plus, I had this feeling that if I could somehow make the stories come together on the page in a logical way, then the temporal jumble in my mind would sort itself out as well. And it did seem to go down like this, at first anyway, as I developed characters and vignettes and clever chapter titles, and as the tales began to cohere in a way that I had only partially thought possible when I first started out. I even had a working title for the collection, another pretty clever one if I may be so humble: Memories of Tomorrow: A Look Back at What Lies Ahead. So far, so good.
But something began to shift after a few weeks spent in this manner. Maybe it was the constant, recurring reflection required by the regular visits to Dr. Imago. While nothing particularly shocking or radical seemed to happen in these sessions, it drained me to have to recount the stories that were continually playing in my mind. I felt as if by speaking the tales aloud in the presence of another I was sapping them of their literary power, and simultaneously making them more concretely visible in my mind even as I was trying to background them. I guess it’s possible that he was drawing on techniques used with repressed memories, where bringing them out to the surface causes initial pain but promises longer-term gain. But this was a different situation altogether, I thought, since my memories weren’t repressed but all-too-real as they already stood. Further, I was on constant alert for possible exploitation of my future memories by the good doctor, so this created a certain level of anxiety and forced vigilance in me as well. I actually wound up arguing with him somewhat vehemently about cutting the sessions back to once per week, and after lengthy debate and the threat of leaving his care altogether, he relented. I was relieved at this, and went back to my writing with renewed gusto.
The stories of the past, I mean future, were coming to me with sharply increasing regularity and vividness. Luckily they tended to remain essentially compartmentalized, in the sense that one would generally play itself all the way out before the next one surfaced. By now I’d learned to tell the difference between memories of actual events from either the past or very recent present, and those that had not yet found concrete expression in this time and place. It was all very confusing, to be sure, but as I said the process of writing did help to keep things in some kind of perspective. Luckily, Carlo was amenable to me taking some time off—unpaid, of course—even though I was quite vague about the reasons why except to tell him that it was personal and involved ‘doctor’s orders’, and he did promise me that my job would still be there when I was back on my feet again, so to speak. So now I had the space I needed to pursue my writing, had scaled back the psychiatric visits to a manageable schedule, and maybe even had a job to fall back on if need be. If I was going to make it as a writer, it would be now or never.
Larissa was actually quite supportive through all of this, even though she had concerns about the money and whether my mental health was stabilizing or not. Sure, she’d give me grief about sitting on my ass too much or not bringing home the bacon or having some kind of mental masturbation fixation with the future, but this was mostly done in that good-natured needling way of hers, where it had a serious aspect to it but was offered lovingly and with a sense of biting humor as well. What can I say, she was a city person and this, I think, is how urbanites show affection—and besides, she kept me honest and never let the whole crazy ‘future past’ thing get too far out of hand.
So I worked the words onto the page. They came quite easily at times, more so than ever before. I would sit down with a vague concept in mind, generally spurred by one of my unrealized memories, and out would come a fairly tight story with characters and scenery and plotlines and connective tissue. I felt more like a conduit than an artist a lot of the time, like someone else was responsible for the content and I was little more than an elaborate typist with a big dictionary (story idea: nah, forget it!). It went on this way for a couple of months, I guess, at which time I decided to go back through the stories and try to link them together in some sort of coherent framework. I could see how some of them fit together, almost like puzzle pieces, but the overall flow had eluded me while I was busy getting them all down on paper. Now, with a body of work before me, and the luxury of hindsight to balance the burden of foresight, I would hopefully be able to establish a central theme or narrative device to bring the whole project together, which would give me something marketable to bring to Omar and help maintain the tenuous order of future memories that were always threatening to push me over the edge. I had no illusions that this sort of coherence would be easy to achieve, but it was a worthy endeavor on many levels, not the least of which was simple self-preservation.
* * *
The stories I had before me were a hodgepodge of varied vignettes, contemplating many different possible futures: a journey to the outer planets of the solar system as they’re being strip-mined; a trip down to a Mexican village powered by human waste; a gripping look at the world from behind the eyes of a border sentry as he struggles to maintain hope; a working model for a permanent and sustainable low-tech community; and many more with similar themes. It appeared that I had a penchant for fantastical adventures with a sense of romantic (or even revolutionary) whimsy, but of course it was nothing of the sort: these were all based on actual memories of people, places, and events that I had on some level experienced. This was more like a travelogue to me than a dystopian (or was it utopian?) vision. But still, I understood that no one else would or could read it that way, so I began to think strategically about packaging it in a digestible form.
Suddenly it hit me: I would create a time machine of some kind, and have a ‘cruise director’ (or something like that) take the neophyte main character on a journey through all of these different settings and experiences. I could even see the back of the book jacket now: “A utopian tour-de-force that remains faithful to the genre while exploding it at the same time, taking the reader on a vivid journey through history and into many possible futures, with a scintillating plot advanced through the experiences of a sardonic but likable protagonist and his goofy yet colorful guide, unveiled in a series of interlinked vignettes that add layers of complexity to the story from one to the next. Don’t miss the book everyone is talking about, winner of the LeGuin award for short fiction, from the sensational author of the acclaimed work A Rising Tide….” But I was getting ahead of myself here; I still had to write the damn thing, after all.
And write it I did. Not a half-bad job, if I do say so myself. I wrapped it up and sent it off to Omar so he could begin shopping it immediately. Well, from here on out you basically know the rest: ‘It’s too short for a novel, no one publishes novellas anymore, what do you mean you won’t expand the work?, how am I supposed to help you if you won’t help yourself?, you have no future in this business!, good day now.’ I was dejected, of course, but on some level I knew this was coming—had I already seen it in my mind’s eye?—so I had a backup plan in place. Taking the manuscript back to the vanity press that had published my first book, scraping up the few dollars I had left in my bank account (without telling Larissa, of course), I had the press make up as many copies as I could afford, which came out to be 42 in all (I rejected the option of DIY online publishing, by the way, on principle and as a statement against electronic impersonalization). Not the big splash I was hoping for, but with a few in print I could begin to shop them out there in the world. Anyway, I even had a cool cover made out of a faux parchment-type paper with an old-school font made to look like it was a scroll or something. Quite clever, huh?
* * *
The visions kept coming, even stronger now since the book was published. Larissa had found the box of them stashed in the garage and blew a gasket. She even refused to help me try to sell them, claiming that it would only encourage my stupidity if we actually sold any of the damn things. Funny, I guess she’d rather have gone hungry than risk giving me the satisfaction of being right. Anyway, we had a big blowup over this, and wound up separating yet remaining friends—but not before she burned up half the copies I had of the book in what she claimed was a ‘cleansing ritual’ but seemed to me more like a plain-old pissed-off rage. But that was months ago, and as they say, the show must go on.
So I went back to work with Carlo again. He was under contract from some aerospace firm to come up with a way to create a wafer-thin solar collector that could be applied to the body of a spacecraft for use outside of the earth’s atmosphere. Once out there with almost no gravity, the craft could operate on the low-level energy generated by the solar system, which was to be applied like a paint over the entire surface of the craft. The company had already been commissioned to develop a new generation of unmanned vehicles that could scout the outer planets—and in particular their moons—for possible resource extraction and, down the road, perhaps even human colonization. This was all still many years away, but the future was coming quickly now and, as Carlo said, it’s better to be ahead of the curve than behind it. Well, some of this reminded me a bit of the memories I’d used to dredge up the stories from my foray as a writer, but I put that and my nascent ethical concerns aside and tried to focus on the arcane mathematics at hand.
I was also still seeing Dr. Imago, only once a month now, as he seemed to have abandoned any hope that my visions (or were they delusions?) would produce much of any use to him. I think he was still toying with the idea of an academic paper on that Leiderhosen Syndrome, or whatever he’d called it that first day, but even this seemed less interesting as few if any of my so-called memories actually seemed to pan out. What the doctor failed to realize was that many of the future recollections were from times still quite far ahead, and I had learned to be very careful about sharing any of those that seemed even remotely plausible out of fear of being burned at the stake like a witch or something equally horrifying like that. Who really needed that grief, after all, and besides I never much trusted the guy so he got nothing out of me except tales about post-apocalyptic monks and what it was like to be the last polar bear on earth. Screw him.
* * *
A few months later, Larissa and I had parted ways—not with any animosity or anything, but just the way it sometimes happens with people. I’d heard through the grapevine that she had taken some sort of interest in the issue of cloning, but that, as they say, was that. Anyway, life moved along and there was still a whole future out there to be discovered, or remembered, or both—same difference, after all, I thought…
Lemar Starland, in memoriam (or in futuriam?)