June 2012

Dear [name unreadable],

Well, here’s the thing. The Dark Lord Eden Soulrune was supposed to attempt to take over the word and from thus the cosmos in 1988 as foretold by the great prophet Victor Paradox. You might have heard of him; he had a stage show in Vegas for a while.

Anyway, prophecies are generally pretty ironclad about stuff like that, but there was a…well, a hiccup. Let’s just say that two things no prophet has ever been able to predict are the Dow Jones Industrial Average and stress-induced myocardial infarctions. Lord Eden’s financial empire was wiped out by Black Monday in 1987, and he died of a heart attack (the man was evil but he did love his donuts) while raising money and manpower in Zaire.

So the upshot is, there won’t be a need for another Chosen One until the next Dark Lord arises after the next Great Cycle of Being starts in 2024. And the thing about Chosen Ones is that thy kinda need to develop their powers before a certain age. You know how kids can’t talk if they don’t get taught before a certain age? It’s kind of like that.

So we’ve kind of got a Chosen One that we can’t really do anything with. Sorry about getting your hopes up and all that. Mind living an ordinary life from here on out? Thanks.

No-Au Ogkrug
Grand Celestial Architect Wizard Esquire

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Ethical Question the Fifth:

You are in a store and a nearby customer drops a cheap glass cup, which shatters. They pretend to ignore it, and no one witnessed the accident except you. Do you:

A. Confront the customer and demand that they take responsibility for their actions?
They can easily afford to pay for a cheap piece of glass and should learn a lesson about honesty.

B. Report the customer to the store? It is the store’s merchandise and they should be the ones to decide what action to take, if any, against the customer.

C. Report the breakage to the store but not mention the customer?
The broken glass could injure someone and its cleanup is the main priority.

D. Do nothing? The glass is not valuable enough to justify doing anything; the story will discover it in time and confrontation with the customer is pointless.

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I was thrust into a back room, illuminated only by a single overhead bulb. I think Œ sat casually slouched on a folding chair directly beneath it; I’m not sure because the figure there was clad in baggy cargo jeans, an oversized hoodie, a ragged baseball cap, big dark Ray-Bans, and a drawn bandana with a skeletal grin printed on it. It was impossible to tell their age, gender, or anything else about them, other than the fact that some kind of flesh filled those tattered raiments.

“A little theatrical, don’t you think?” I said. One of the others, dressed similarly to Œ, set out a folded chair for me and I took a seat. “If you really wanted to be anonymous we could have talked more on the phone.”

“But you want theatricality, Mr. Cummings,” Œ said. Their voice was distorted by one of those vox boxes you sometimes hear in cheap horror movies, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little disconcerted by it. “You’re enough of a narcissist that you have to see your little investigation as a titanic struggle between you, the hero, and us, the blackest evil. If I were sitting here, ordinary and unmasked, you’d be devastated.”

I stung a little from that observation. “I just want the truth. What is this ‘Project’ you’re working on, and how do all these little bits and pieces fit together?”

“The truth?” Œ’s laughter was modified into an ominous chuckle. “It’s never been about the truth. It’s been you tilting at windmills from the start, sacrificing what little journalistic integrity you had for the sake of bad puns. The fact that you can’t see the bigger picture is indicative of your failings as a person: petty, narcissistic, lazy, with a latent but distinct fascist bent.”

Who was that rag-clad hobo to call me all that? I was trembling by now, the way I always do during any kind of a confrontation. “If you wanted to insult me you could have just sent a letter to the editor. Now either give me something about your ‘Project’ or crawl back into whatever hole you came out of and go back to sharpening your hammer and sickle.”

Œ laughed again. “The Project is the perfect small-scale experiment. What is a university but an ironclad despotism, with a vast disenfranchised population at the whims of a privileged few, just like any other system? Those people have the power to be awakened and moved to action. That’s what we’re doing, and it’s just the start.”

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“I came from Wonderworld,” the traveler said, leaning back against the crumbling cinderblock wall while helping himself to Elmer’s bean stew.

“Wonderworld? The amusement park?” Elmer remembered the TV ads and that tagline (“The most fun on planet Earth”) from those long-ago halcyon days before the Crash.

“That’s right,” the traveler said. “It’s one of the biggest and most prosperous settlements on the coast these days.”

“You’re joking,” Elmer scoffed. “What, are the guys in costumes enough to scare away the superstitious post-Crashers, mutants, and skinmelters?”

“Laugh if you want, but it makes sense if you use your brain. Think about it: it was already walled before the Crash. Lots of weapons and trained guys for security. Lots of food, lots of water, its own power grid and staff. Big parking lots all around and nice tall roller coasters to spot and snipe anyone who looks up to no good. We beat back about an attack a week, easily.”

“So what you’re saying is it’s still the most fun on planet Earth?” Elmer said, half-serious.

“Never heard that one before,” the traveler groused, mouth full of beans. “But yeah.”

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John had thought that an engagement at the Association of American English Teachers would be just the thing he needed to help get his book off the ground. His publisher had crowed that he’d be autographing and selling books on the exhibition floor to people who routinely bought 23 copies each. In addition to the hefty amount he’d sunk into promotion, John sprang for boxes of copies to autograph and sell.

The reality? He’d sold, and signed, maybe 3 books.

John’s publisher had neglected to mention that, at any one time, there were dozens of authors on the exhibit floor. And when one of those authors was Jenny Norman, author of the acclaimed YA “Otherwheres” series, and another was fantasy author Michael C. McConnolly, whose books were on their third blockbuster miniseries…

In fact, the only real movement on John’s end had been passing teachers stealing copies of his book when he went to the bathroom or was in any way distracted for the briefest of moments (the Elsigraw Publishers staff ostensibly manning the booth had long since snuck off to meet up with other vendors for drinks). He’d lost 30 copies that way, and while the thought that they might end up in a library was some consolation, each of those books was a good $5 walking merrily away.

A booth runner from Scholar Specialty Imprints next door offered the only assistance. “These English teachers are underfunded parasites,” he said. “They have so little money for textbooks and libraries that they fill their bags with books here to make up for it. The big companies give away so many handfuls of free books that they get all glaze-eyed, taking everything that isn’t nailed down.”

“What do we do, then?” John asked.

“The big boys have a staff to keep an eye on their tchotchkes and keep the teachers from sneaking away with any swag unless they listen to a sales pitch. Us? Just hope that one or two interested customers show up amidst the leeches.”

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Zines. Short for magazine or fanzine. Small-circulation publications, usually made on a cheap library photocopier. Usually a thousand copies or less of each issue, if there is in fact more than one issue. You’d think that they’d be the sort of thing that would slip under the radar, but as Underwater Basket Weaving proved, academics can study anything. As it happens, the Graphic Arts department at SMU is lousy with people that study zines; it falls to me, as the SMU Archivist for Visual Arts and Ephemera, to collect them.

Time was, most of the zines were outlets for paranoid schizophrenia on the Francis E. Dec level or extreme right- or left-wing conspiracy nuts. That was still true for a lot of them, but of course those weren’t the ones my faculty wanted me to collect. Like everything else that had once been an authentic mode of expression, zines have also been appropriated by hipsters. Now the field is full of people with art, design, philosophy, or literature degrees taking an inordinate amount of time and their parents’ money to try and design an zine that looks like it cost $0.50 to xerox.

So I write to peers in Berkley, New York, Austin, Ann Arbor asking for them to collect what zines they can find and mail them to me. I get piles of zine comics (the creators spell it with an X, comix, but I reserve that term for authentic stuff) trying desperately to be edgy and relevant and socially conscious. They typically wind up somewhere around “pretentious” instead. Then there’s the reams of bad prose poetry, cut up and pasted onto a sheet of notebook paper before xeroxing to make the tired odes to revolutionary consciousness and Free Tibet seem more authentic than the regurgitated leavings of petit bourgeoisie in denial.

I carefully place them into big acid free boxes while people come by to look and write impressive-sounding papers about these grassroots artforms. I haven’t the heart to tell them it’s astroturf.

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Nobody was surprised when young Chris Boyle began spending most of each day playing a new computer roleplaying game. Weak, awkward, and practically abandoned by latchkey parents, Chris had long sought immersion in such fantasy worlds. People did think it a little odd that, despite the time Chris seemed to invest in the game, none of the usual symptoms of intense game use (paleness, weight gain, pizzaface outbreaks) seemed to appear.

Quite the opposite in fact.

Rumors that Chris had beaten up perennial tormentor Daryl Dupine were confirmed by the appearance of the latter some days later with a shiner and assorted other bruises. At Track and Field Day (AKA Let The Gym Teachers Earn Their Keep For Once Day), Chris astonished with first-place finishes in track, shot-put, and weight lifting despite having no prior affinity for those events and no time in between playing games on a laptop to develop them. At the end of the school year, people had no more answers; even steroid use required a modicum of exercise to work, and school photos confirmed that Chris was significantly taller and more muscular than was explainable.

It wasn’t until just after school ended and Chris came into the town square riding a dragon, wielding a flaming sword and sporting engraved full plate armor that the situated became at least marginally clearer.

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Dr. Dana D. Eggebrecht’s field notes from June, 18XX

…that the split among the Ide is so acrimonious is odd given that it was so recent and brought about more by a question of policy than any true religious, geographic, or ideological divide of the sort that divides modern tribes or nations. Indeed, the Ide share virtually the same traditions and beliefs with a particularly interesting eschatology. My guide, from the Lower Ide, has brought me to what the settlers in Paradise Falls call “Splinterstone Cave” to show me rock paintings, hundreds or thousands of years old, made by his ancestors.

According to him, they detail events that will bring about the end of the world.

The painting shows a people as one, hunting and farming and gathering. They are then split by what looks like another group of ambiguous figures that could be other people or some sort of spirit or demon. One of the other figures, which are drawn in lighter shades than the dark ochre of the paleo-Ide, seems to cross over to their side. The others–Ide and interloper–then battle. The last area appears to show a variety of strange creatures intervening and carrying the darker Ide upwards.

My guide tells me that the story is so: A group of strangers will arrive sowing death and dischord, and one of their number will fall in with the Ide. In the process of reclaiming them (or perhaps to rob the Ide of what is rightfully theirs; my guide admits that there are multiple interpretations) there will be a massive war between the Ide and the interlopers. Both sides will have their lands ravaged and destroyed, but for their valor in the final battle the gods of the Ide pantheon will emerge to destroy the evil interlopers and bear the Ide to the rich grounds of the next life.

I will admit to some frustration with the Ide and their primitiveness, to say nothing of the stubborn townsfolk of Paradise Falls. But this legend is a dire portent indeed; in the eyes of at least some Ide, the arrival of the Paradise Falls settlers has set in motion a chain of events that will bring about the end of the world. In their well-meaning ignorance, the settlers are swelling the ranks of those who would battle them for that reason alone. For even if they will not fight for a prophecy, the Ide will surely fight to protect their lands.

I fear that events will soon unfold that will not only see an end to my work, but bring about an apocalypse of a sort for both the settlers and the Ide.

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“GesteCo has been…diversifying. They’ve got some interesting trees at their experimental facility in Xinjiang.”

“Trees? You pulled this whole Deep Throat cloak-and-dagger thing for trees? Look: GesteCo is the international leader in artificial gestation, test tube babies, and designer kids for the rich and famous. If you can’t give me something juicy along those lines, there’s no point in talking.”

“Trees can be interesting, Mr. Whitacre. For instance, have you seen the GesteCo tree that’s been making the rounds at bioengineering conferences? They say it can produce human stem cells.”

“It’s easier just to collect those from newborns.”

“You’re not listening, Mr. Whitacre. Inside the trees: you must look inside! It is both a wonder and a horror that will, I think, be well worth your time.”

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A memetic entity…it sounds like the fevered dream of a madman, doesn’t it? But think about it for a second. A meme is nothing more than an idea or behavior, after all; it’s cultural DNA. And just like real DNA it spreads, reproduces, and mutates. Kind of like a virus where the symptoms are not nasal discharge and death but cute pictures of cats and catchphrases badly translated from the original Japanese. Everybody knows that viruses aren’t technically alive by most definitions.

But they’re disturbingly close to it.

Richard Dawkins used similar language in The Selfish Gene, of course, but only as an analogy. Imagine if the memes we pass around encoded some of the other aspects of true life, like homeostasis (maintaining a constant state), growth, or response to external stimuli. By some definitions memes already do this.

Imagine a highly evolved meme that takes the form of a very catchy song. Once you hear it, you can’t get it out of your head and find yourself constantly singing it. The melody fits together well enough that changing it is hard (homeostasis), other people hear it and take up the song (reproduction), it changes gradually to avoid becoming stale (adaptation) and annihilates other songs competing for attention (consumption).

Then imagine if the song was somehow self-aware. Perhaps it communicates by varying the words.

Or imagine if the meme that was passed on was the suggestion that, some hours ago, you had seen and spoken to a person who does not exist.

There was a time when I would have thought all this speculation about a memetic entity was strictly academic, and interesting thought exercise in the Dawkins vein about the way our culture changes and shares information.

But that’s before I met one.

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