As part of my ongoing exploration of the thin representational line between research and poetry, arts and humanities and social science understandings, and fiction and nonfiction, I am presenting a serialized version of a book chapter I originally wrote for John Sherry and Stephen Brown’s 2003 volume “Time, Space, and the Market: Retroscapes Rising.” Although they liked the original version of this chapter, which they described as a free-form essay in their call for contributions, they felt that this text was a little bit too different, and would be out of place in an academic book.
I drew on my background dabbling as a science fiction writer, and tried to combine that style with an academic prose, situating myself in the story at the time and blending my own actual research with other nonfiction writing to devise a science fiction short story that also serves as a social scientific article, complete with references. For the Retroscapes volume, I really wanted to have a textual form that would allow me to play with the interrelation of past, present, and future that typifies scientific thought, science fiction, and Burning Man’s retro-futuristic primitivism. The result is experimental writing.
Let me situate the story a little bit for you. I wrote this little ditty in December of 2001. I had been working steadily on my Burning Man video and the original Journal of Consumer Research article, which had been accepted for publication (I originally referenced it as forthcoming, and updating that reference is the only change I’ve made to this text), and I had also been working on the Retromarketing article with Stephen and John (later published in the Journal of Marketing). I had been affected as many of us were by the recent events of 9-11 and the nostalgic tinge they brought to everything. It’s a personal story in many ways, it was cathartic and enjoyable to write, and I quite liked the result. Aside from Stephen Brown and John Sherry, no one else has seen it before now.
So I’m very pleased to present it to you here, serialized over the next 9 installments of this blog. The title of the story is
Super Hyper Über Ultra Post-Postmodern Primitives
It starts out threadlike, expanding into a possum shape at the edge of glimmer. Ganzfeld perfect it hovers, forming itself into true substrate, majestic as an infinite regression, hallowed as spirit holiness and as out of taste and place as a lime green baby grand in a Manhattan highrise penthouse. Under intense scrutiny, it pervades the reaches of some netherdata stratum, some organophosphate subnano blend that rushes bloodlessly into the dreamvoid and starts to stream, a mystical digital scream spewing ectoplasmic steam, pricking pin pointedly past ontological membranes, transferring orders and odors, snapshots and commands from the mind of its irreverent possessor, a professor, to the unsuspecting childlike naivete chained amoeba brown subintelligence of the computer system, and the billions of jingling, dingaling, bots that live within it.
“Got him,” the voice says, and I know it somehow to belong to a lizard. Anna-Marie-Delmonte-Louisa-Exxon, her hand on the hard of the neurofibrils of her blinders. “Almost. . . yeah, I got him tuned.”
“Not another one of them flikking neuropavers.”
“No badass, not a neuropaver. A sunkicker, more like. Mmm. PlanFeds, maybe. Gone now. Coulda been both.”
Then, nothing. A twisted silence. Tendrils stretching, associations accreting in a dream-drenched sleep. A million doorways with angry strangers behind every one. Old men twisting their teeth out one by one. Popsicles shaped like stars.
“What flavor of sunshine is that?” I say, continuing the thought in my dream and licking the place where my lips used to be. It’s dark, but warm. I must be under the blankets on a cool winter day. Must be.
“Delirious invasion,” a voice says. A slightly worried voice.
“No flikking wonder,” says another. “We lose him, scalehead?”
“Nope. Artifice signal, I think. Hold on,” the first voice says. “Yeah, the nimbrain was dreaming us. His waves are all zaggy. Let’s try this.”
Suddenly, as if someone has rammed the information into my head, I know. I remember. Or more precisely, I realize. This is terribly sick. I feel a lurch where my stomach used to be.
“It’s registering kay-oh,” the first voice says.
“He’s apprehensive,” the other voice says.
“Damned right I’m apprehensive!” I say. “How could you, could you do this? It’s not, you know, it’s not very nice.” There is something like maybe a muffled chuckle from somewhere. “Well, can I see around? Can you turn on the lights?”
“Hold on, Professor. We’re trying to get that piece of equipment online.”
“Well, that’s very nice of you. Can you maybe hurry up? This is making me very, very anxious.”
It’s not a blurriness or a haziness at all, not really like waking up. There’s a chalk green ambivalence, dull light spreading unevenly to the horizon, a feeling like my entire body is being dipped into lukewarm rapidly bubbling water, a taste like chili pepper vinegar, and the lights just go on. You’d think that after six hundred odd years of sleep there would be some sort of gradation to the awakening. But there isn’t.
Then I’m staring at these two, um, I guess I should call them people. The first one is obviously female. Her head is shaved smooth and shiny but she has this gorgeous woman’s face with gigantic green eyes and weird glowing makeup all over her eyes, lips, and cheeks. Her skin color and texture are very lizardlike, a pale tan-green with a beautiful smooth black and red patterning, like a snake. I guess this is genetic engineering in the service of fashion. Kind of cool in a way.
Her clothes are even more interesting. She’s wearing what appears to be a series of thin, rippling, clothlike videoscreens. The different screens are attached together like a quilt and there are different pictures playing on each of them. One of them looks like a scene from a Classic Coca-Cola commercial. I recognize the end scene from Casablanca on there, too. And the guy from the don’t-squeeze-the-Charmin commercial. Well, at questionable taste has survived into the future. And marketing. The whole apparatus is suspended about three inches or so from her body by about two dozen floating metallic orbs that follow her every move so that fabric doesn’t ever touch her skin. Her bare, lizardy, beautiful flesh is visible beneath the draping slope of the screen-cloth.
The male—I think he’s male—is covered in something that looks like blue feathers, but is more shiny and plasticky. He has a large bumpy thing tethered to his back that I guess is a set of wings. He also has a lot of shiny metallic parts attached to his head, face, and hands. He’s wearing something that looks like a smock made of beaded small crystals, suspended by the same sort of flying antigrav balls that hold up the lizard girl’s dress. Across the crystals of his smock, patterns are whizzing around in laser lights, patterns made of the most intense purples, oranges, blues, reds, and greens. The patterns remind me of the Spir-O-Graph patterns I used to play with as a kid.
Lizard-girl and the Birdman are noodling around with something made out of a type of metal that looks like it was grown, some sort of weird, accreting, shifting, drifting, breathing metallic hybrid. The room we’re in is done up in retroscape kitsch to the nth degree. There are pink flamingo statues, and matching lamps. Bric-a-brac of all sorts, including lava lamps, some corroded Yellow Submarine figures, and a collection of sex toys mounted in frames and glass cases. A wall is filled with old black and white autographed pictures—I catch one of Miles Davis, another of Sinatra. The backdrop is anything but kitschy, though. The windows are immense. The view is unbelievable. Outside, in brazen relief against the softest of black velvet skies, is the surface of the moon. But it’s not any moon I’ve ever seen. There are huge patches that look like aerial views of Times Squares and downtown Chicago’s skyline. Spaceships meander by. Large metal objects that I guess are space stations hang suspended in several places. We’re flying slow and low over the lunar Las Vegas scene. I can make out individual groups of buildings on the surface, and gigantic domed hydroponic centers that must be parks or community centers of some kind.
“Rob, welcome to the year 2626,” lizard girl says, with a broad smile and sparkling yellow eyes. “My name is Anna-Marie-Delmonte-Louisa-Exxon. This is 4_Com_3Jeff.”
I turn around, or at least try to. I seem to have no neck. I glance down at my body. It looks like a straight yellow cylindrical shaft, my neck fixed firmly to it. All those years giving pencil headed academic answers, and here I am, finally turned into a pencil. Not quite a pencil, though. As I try to shrug, to get myself away from this thing that seems to be holding me in, I find I could get the yellow metal to pucker and bend, like a metallic putty.
“Are you ready to get to work?” says 3_Jeff. “We want to know about Burning Man.”